A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, September 30, 2011

Salih Boasts of Cooperation with US Just Before ‘Awlaqi Announcement

Am I unusual in wondering if there is any connection between the fact that this morning's Washington Post front page featured an interview with Yemeni President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih in which he emphasized how vital his cooperation was with US intelligence against Al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula (he said the same to a Time reporter as well), and the fact that, in what was apparently the first drone strike from a new CIA Predator base "in the Arabian Peninsula", the US finally killed AQAP's Anwar al-‘Awlaqi?

If it was pure coincidence, the timing certainly played into making Salih's point.

"The Friday of Reclaiming the Revolution"

UPDATE: Turnout seems to have been disappointingAlso see here,with photos.Today a broad coalition of center and left parties in Egypt are demonstrating to express their objections to the ruling Military Council's recent changes to the electoral law and to threaten a possible boycott of the elections. It's been proclaimed the "Friday of Reclaiming the Revolution."

Ahram Online is providing ongoing coverage as the day progresses. I'll have more when it's over.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Talk About Fusion Music: The "Jamaican/Algerian" Reggae/Raï Israeli Arab (Druze) Band from the Golan Heights

Now for you young'uns out there, I have to emphasize that I'm still getting over Elvis' death back in
'77, and while I did play the Beatles' "When I'm 64" a  lot a week ago when I turned a certain age, I'm hardly a pop music critic for the present millennium.

To me music ranges from early rock through classic country, jazz, Delta blues and R&B, with a bit of pop in there too. So I'm not exactly up to speed on  current trends in Rap, Hip Hop, or Go-Go, though I'm not humming "When You and I Were Young, Maggie," or "A Bicycle Built for Two," either.

Today being Rosh Hashona and these being the High Holy Days and all, along with the Palestinian UN application,  I'm reading the Israeli press more than in some periods. In the process I ran across this.

A blend of Jamaican reggae and Algerian Raï? Okay. Israeli Arabs? Okay. Well, Druze actually. From Majeal Shams in the Golan Heights. Facebook Page here.

And samples from YouTube:

Maybe He IS Listening to Me

Yesterday I posted about the anomaly of a woman in Saudi Arabia being sentenced to 10 lashes for driving just after the King had granted women the (limited) right to vote (in a couple of years) by remarking:
The King does not ask me for advice (well, not yet, anyway) and I doubt if he reads this blog, but this would be a real good time for a Royal Pardon, your majesty.
Unconfirmed reports are saying he's done just that.

Wise move, Your Majesty. So wise, I waive my usual consulting fee.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

שנה טובה : Shona Tova AM 5772: Happy Rosh Hashona!

Shona Tova — שנה טובה — to my Jewish readers; Rosh Hashona begins at sundown tonight, and with it the High Holy Days. Happy and sweet New Year.

Yemeni Rebels Shoot Down Fighter

Yemeni rebels being described as "tribesmen" have managed to shoot down a Yemeni Air Force Sukhoi Su-22 fighter near Arhab. Fighting has seemingly intensified since President Salih's return vfrom Saudi Arabia last week.

I suspect the Su-22 was carrying out ground attacks against rebel positions,and I also suspect these "tribesmen" include rebel military units. Libyan rebels claimed to bring down a couple of Libyan fighters (also I believe SU-22s) durting the fighting there.

Ursula Lindsey on Women in the Egyptian Revolution

Ursula Lindsey, a frequent blogger at The Arabist,  has a Newsweek piece posted over at The Daily Beast on "The Women's Revolution."

Women were at the forefront in Tahrir (and some of them were subjected to what were referred to as "virginity checks" by the military); as Lindsey notes, the only woman in the current cabinet is a Mubarak holdover.

She has also found every reporter's dream: two related and contrasting examples: a young, jeans-wearing feminist and her aunt, a committed supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. It's a good read, and a thoughtful one.

Mixed Signals to Say the Least

Saudi Arabia got pretty good press — for the Kingdom anyway — from King ‘Abdullah's announcement that women would be allowed to vote (for the only thing any Saudi can vote for, municipal councils), and be appointed to the Majlis al-Shura, so from a PR point of view the fact that two days later a woman is sentenced to ten lashes for driving a car, is certainly counterproductive. The King does not ask me for advice (well, not yet, anyway) and I doubt if he reads this blog, but this would be a real good time for a Royal Pardon, your majesty.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Egypt: Election Dates Set; Electoral Laws Changed

Today Egypt's Supeme Council of the Armed Forces announced the dates for the Egyptian Parliamentary elections, beginning November 28, oner week late than previous leaks had suggested. There will be three rounds of elections for the People's Asssembly (Lower House), concluding on January 3, followed by three rounds for the Shura Council (Upper House), starting January 29. The People's Assembly will convene March 16, the Shura Council March 24. Thixs stretched-out calendar means that Parliament cannot begin the project of amending the Constitution before spring, meaning Presidential elections will be pushed into late 2012 if not later.

The SCAF decree also confirmed the Cabinet amendments to the electoral law which were pushed through on Sunday and which have provoked strong criticism from most political parties. These provide that two-thirds of the People's Assembly will be elected on a party list basis, and one third by individual constituencies, as opposed to half and half as previously envisioned. This is being criticized as strengthening the established parties and perhaps keeping the previous establishment in power,  while other critics are arguing that it will create a weak and divided Parliament, thus strengthening the power of the Military Council.,which some suspect of wanting to remain in power. (See this earlier post.)

Although after the fall of Mubarak, there were many calls to write a new constitution first (the route Tunisia has chosen), others urged quick elections. In the end we have neither: the electoral calendar is long and the Presidential elections are shifting well into 2012 (and some are hinting 2013). More time, some worry, for the Military Council to get used to being in power.

Rebel Leaders, Amazigh Explore Contacts with Libyan Jews Abroad

One interesting historical/cultural sidelight of the ongoing and unfinished transition in Libya has been at least a cautious, tentative outreach to the Libyan Jewish diaspora by the rebel forces.  Although early in the fighting there were reports that Islamist elements in the rebel forces were using the rumor that Colonel Qadhafi was Jewish to rally support against him, (Some Libyan Jews in Israel have claimed one of his grandmothers was a Jewish convert to Islam.) Over the past few weeks there have been a number of news reports dealing with reported outreach to the Libyan Jewish diaspora, though Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi a few years ago himself made some gestures to Libyan Jews abroad. A leader of Libyan Jews in the UK has told the Jerusalem Post that he had been approached by members of the National Transitional Council, suggesting he return to Libya and run for political office. An AFP report noted the longtime relationships between Jewish and Amazigh ("Berber") communities in Yafran (Ifren, Ifrane), in the Jebel Nefusa, while The Jerusalem Post, again, has emphasized how David Gerbi, representative of the World Organization of Libyan Jews, based in Italy, has cultivated good relations with the Amazigh rebels. 

Although as I noted, in the years since his rapprochement with the West Qadhafi himself had opened links with Jewish Libyans in the diaspora, and Saif al-Islam had been more open in urging Libyan Jews to return, possibly due to the overinflated view many Arab leaders have of Jewish influence, combined with a recongition that both Morocco and Tunisia (especially Djerba) have benefited from significant Jewish tourism (even from Israel), Libya itself has no indigenous Jewish population. The last Libyan Jew, an elderly woman in a rest home in Tripoli, emigrated to Italy in 2003.

Her departure marked the end of a long history of Jewish presence in what is now Libya. The Hellenistic city of Cyrene in eastern Libya was a major Jewish center in the last years BC and the first years AD; in the gospels Simon of Cyrene is compelled to carry Jesus' cross, and the Acts of the Apostles mentions Cyrene frequently. Jewish communities spread to Tripoli and the Jebel Nefusa (hence the Amazigh links).

But the 20th century was not kind to Libya's Jews. Though Benito Mussolini came to Anti-Semitism late, mostly due to his Axis with the Nazis, Italy's Anti-Semitic laws also applied in Libya. Aftar there were two pogroms in Tripoli, and many Libyan Jews fled to Italy or, after the establishment of Israel, to the new Jewish state. Emigration continued throughout the monarchy period and became more extensive once Qadhafi came to power. As noted, the last Jewish Libyan is believed to have left in 2003.

Most of the Libyan Jewish diaspora are in Israel and Italy, though there are also significant numbers in the UK and the US. Whether the flirtations of the new rebel leadership will lead anywhere will doubtless depend on the makeup of the new government, whose formation has been delayed yet again. But it's an interesting sidelight of the Libyan revolution.

The Field Marshal in a Suit: An Omen?

Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Minister of Defense, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and Egypt's de facto head of state since February 11, has been a bit of a mystery, sphinx-like if you will. He made one public speech (the Police Academy graduation), has given a few rare press interviews, and while often shown on television, doesn't say much there. He is by far the most powerful figure in the country, but little known to most Egyptians and foreign observers.

Yesterday he had a high profile day. He testified in the Mubarak trial, though the testimony was closed (though there's a leaked version of its supposed text out there, which has no big surprises). And he was photographed walking through downtown Cairo, without guards visible, in a civilian suit. (Photo above from  The Daily News Egypt site.) UPDATES with video below.

Uh-oh.  It's already looking like a new President may not be elected till late next year at the earliest, and (a post is coming on this when I finish working on it), this past weekend's changes in the electoral law are seen by some as guaranteeing a weak parliament, perhaps giving the SCAF more responsibility. Suspicion that the SCAF is starting to get used to power and may not be in as great a hurry as it once claimed to be to hand over the reins to an elected President has been growing. And now, the head of SCAF seems to be doing the man-of-the-people thing, just another ibn al-balad (or at least Misri Effendi) strolling through the streets of the capital in mufti with no (visible) entourage. Right. I'm sure he does that every day. I did have a Major General drive me around once, but Major Generals are a dime a dozen in Egypt, and I've never run into a Field Marshal out for a stroll.

Now, one of the reasons Mubarak liked Tantawi (as opposed to the Field Marshal he inherited from Sadat, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazala, who eventually was pushed out), was that Tantawi never had any detectable ambition beyond being the Field Marshal, and absolutely not a trace of detectable charisma that could win him popularity. His refusal to make himself a public figure despite being in the top office suggests he still has little of the latter, but is he developing ambition?

Next year, which will be the 50th anniversary of the 1952 Revolution and the first anniversary of this year's, now seems like the earliest we can expect a Presidential election. Many have hoped that for the first time in a half century, the new man (don't expect a woman, not yet or soon) would be a man without military experience or simply one who'd done his regular national service, not a former career officer. Already one declared candidate (Magdi Hatata) is a former senior general, as is probable candidate former Air Force Chief Ahmad Shafiq. (Some still think ex-intel chief and Vice President ‘Omar Suleiman might run as well.) And now Tantawi is starting to look like a man of the people.

Right now I don't find that reassuring, though I know there are some who do. In Egypt, and here in Washington.  My own attitude is pretty much Back to the Barracks, or Back to Tahrir.  But I know there are those who think it's a choice between the uniforms or the Muslim Brothers. I think we should at least let there be an election first.

UPDATES: Comments from Zeinobia, and the video from TV:

Monday, September 26, 2011

Twitter and the Arab Spring, Again

The role of social media in this year's revolutionary ferment continues to provoke debate and comment. A useful contribution is this piece by Caryle Murphy in The Majalla: "The Twitter Generation: How is Social Media Shaping the New Middle East?"

Saudi Women and the Vote: A Small Acknowledgment of Arab Spring?

Based on King ‘Abdullah's announcement over the weekend, it now appears that Saudi women will be given the right to vote and run in municipal elections and to be appointed to the Shura Council, even though, as Zeinobia has acerbically pointed out, they still can't drive to the polling place.

Juan Cole's analysis situates the move within the broader movements for women's rights and political reform in the Kingdom, and poses the question of whether it goes far enough. As with any of the reforms offered by established regimes in the face of the ferment of the Arab Street in what is still called "Arab Spring" as the leaves begin to fall, only the course of events can answer that. With the (extremely important) exception of Bahrain, the GCC states have generally avoided the violence of other Arab protests, mostly by increasing social and economic benefits in lieu of political rights.

Municipal councils are only partly elected (and partly appointed); they are the only vote Saudis can exercise. The Shura Council is fully appointed, though reformers have pressured for electing at least some of its members.

It is hard for me to picture a revolutionary movement succeeding in Saudi Arabia, but last December it was hard for me to picture the toppling of leaders in Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli and the ongoing conflicts in Yemen and Syria. King ‘Abdullah is often portrayed as a reformer (within the parameters of the Saudi Royal Family), and some had suggested that — as a Saudi professor says in the interview below — he would move on the driving rights issue soon. Instead, he has chosen to move on the issue of voting and service on the Shura Council.

It is certainly a victory for Saudi women, if a small one with a long way to go. Here's an Al Jazeera discussion in English, which Juan Cole also reproduced:

After the Application: Now What?

The Quartet today has agreed on a new Middle East peace proposal that envisions a two-state settlement by the end of 2012. That may suggest that the Palestinian UN application, for all the Sturm und Drang surrounding it, may have had the somewhat salutary result of moving things off the static position in which they had settled for too long. On the other hand, the PLO is reportedly urging the Security Council to make a decision within two weeks, which means that US hopes for a long, slow process may not prove feasible.  Since the US has promised it would veto a Security Council move to admit, it has already suffered damage in the region.

I deliberately didn't write on the subject Friday to give myself a little time to digest the implications. I'm still doing so. With the US moving into a political campaign, its options were limited at best; clearly the US is not in the driver's seat on the Middle East at the moment, but Arab Spring had already made that clear. There is indeed a danger of a renewed intifada or other outbreak of violence, but the Palestinians seem to have decided that the gamble is worth it and that this Israeli government will not otherwise move forward. But it's still dangerous, and if the US is increasingly marginalized, could become more so. On the other hand, nothing has really changed yet, and if the Palestinians cannot muster enough support in the UNSC to win, the US would be spared having to use the Veto. (Though having promised to use it, it has already shown its position clearly.) If Israel reacts sharply and imposes new sanctions on the Palestinians (or the US does, as many in Congress seek), the danger levels rise.

It's certainly time for new thinking, and there are potential opportunities here as well as dangers. Like Arab Spring itself, it will be clearer what to make of this period once it's over. Until then, we have to hang on for the ride.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Time Warp/Mind Warp: 28-Year-Old Netanyahu Debates Fouad Ajami in 1978

A hat tip to Joshua Teitelbaum of Stanford and Tel Aviv for this YouTube find. A 1978 debate between "Ben Nitay" (Bibi Netanyahu at age 28) and an Arab spokesman over a Palestinian state. The real kicker is the Arab interlocutor: it's a dark-haired, fuller-bearded Fouad Ajami. Netanyahu's views, at least as I hear them, haven't changed very much, except cosmetically. As for Ajami, I'll let you make up your own minds: It is, 33 years later, utterly fascinating for those of us old enough to remember 1978.

The debaters today:

MEI's Weinbaum on the Taliban after Rabbani Assassination

My MEI colleague Scholar in Residence Marvin Weinbaum offers his views sat The National Interest on the Taliban after the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Growing Pressure for an Earlier Transition in Egypt

The complaints about the longish timetable for transition in Egypt are building. Now some 45 politicvalparties, unions, syndicates,and civil society groups are asking SCAF to hand over power jo later than April 30, 2012, rather than dragging the transition tolate next summer as seemed likely given the schedules advanced so far.

Ths comes amid criticism of SCAF's statement that the State if Emergency will last at least through next June; which has been challenged by a leading jurist amid widespread criticism of holding elections under a State of Emergency;.

I think this pressure is likely to grow. Many suspect that SCAF is not so eager to transfer power as they claim, and many question why the Parliamentary elections have to take so long: three rounds for the lower house followed by three rounds for the upper house. Even someb who initially feared that earlier rather than later elections would favor the Muslim Brotherhood are now impatient to move beyond military rule.As the first round of voting approaches in November, I suspect we'll see growing pressures to move up some parts of the timetable.

Mopping Up in Libya

Qadhafi loyallists still hold Sirte and Bani Walid, but the NTC government is mopping up elsewhere; aftr a few days of resistance Sabha iws now reportedly secure, and today the NTC is claiming the Jufera Oasis is also in their hands. Qadhafi's former Prime Minister has been jailed in Tunisia,  where he reportedly was caught carrying false paper.

Admittedly, the victory isn't complete until Qadhafi himself is accounted for, nor is an Iraq-style insurgency out of the question in areas with strong tribal links to Qadhafi. But it does look like the Qadhafi era is finally lover.

Shelly Yachimovich Elected Leader of Israel's Labor Party

Israel's Labor Party is a mere shadow of its onetime self, down to only eight seats in the current Knesset since Ehud Barak's defection, but there are some who think it still could stand a chance of replacing Kadima as the main opposition party if it can redefine itself as a party running on social and economic issues in the wake of recent nationwide economic protests.

The election of Shelly Yachimovich in yesterday's party runoff yesterday gives  labor its first woman leader since Golda Meir. (And Kadima, of course, is led by Tzipi Livni.) A former journalist and anchor, Yachimovich is a relative newcomer to politics. She beat out former Party chief Amir Peretz for the leadership.

For an admiring editorial on Yachimovich, see here.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

EU Sending 150 Observers to Monitor Tunisia Elections

In stark contrast to Egypt, where the Military Council has said that international observers for the upcoming elections would be an infringement on Egyptian sovereignty, Tunisia has invited the European Union to send 150 observers to monitor the elections for a constituent assembly.

While Egypt continues to struggle with a whole range of issues, Tunisia, where the jasmine first blossomed, is quietly moving ahead.

1948 Revisited

A column in The Economist reminds us of US efforts at the UN in April and May, 1948,  to get the UN to arrange a trusteeship for Palestine and US efforts to prevent an Israeli declaration lf independence. Sound familiar, anyone?

Did Wikileaks Take Down Al Jazeera's Wadah Khanfar?

Al Jazeera Director General Wadah Khanfar announced yesterday that he was retiring after eight years at the head of the news agency. He said he'd been discussing this with the Chairman of the Board for some time, and that he'd decided to move on to new opportunities, etc. (here's his farewell message to his staff), but given the fact that Khanfar has turned up in the latest Wikileaks cable dump, it's not surprising that a lot of people and commentators, up to and including The New York Times, think this is Wikileaks related. One has to admit the timing doesn't suggest he just wanted to spend more time with his family.

If there is a smoking gun, it appears to be this cable from Embassy Doha, released by Wikileaks.  The Embassy PAO, the Public Affairs Officer, met with Khanfar to discuss a Defense Intelligence Agency report about Al Jazeera. Despite some of the reporting there and abroad, he did not meet with the DIA directly, at least not according to this cable. (The DIA representative is usually the Defense Attache.) Nothing in what I read suggests he agreed to "soften" Al Jazeera coverage, just enforce a greater control over what appears on their website.

Admittedly, in the conspiracy-prone Middle East, any whiff of the CIA or the DIA can be fatal, but it suggests a rather naive view of how reporting works. The other day somebody posted a link on Facebook to some publication trying to paint Juan Cole (Juan Cole!) as a "CIA consultant" because a CIA officer had said they had had meetings with him and other academics to give them alternative views. Believe me, in Washington, both academics and journalists interact with the intelligence community because we share the same space. Sometimes we know who they are; sometimes we don't. (I remember an Indian Embassy official taking me out for a lovely Indian lunch in my defense journalism days and quizzing me about the real range of Pakistani ship-to-ship missiles. I assured him that all I knew was what I read in Jane's, and asked him what his job was. "I'm just a visa officer," he assured me. "This is a hobby with me." As an aside, India's intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing, has the greatest acronym of the English-speaking intel world, RAW.)

If you touch policy in DC, you'll touch the intel community. My old college roommate spent a career in the intel community. I've considered myself a personal friend of Miles Copeland, knew William Colby, and met Richard Helms a few times; I've known at least two former heads of Mossad and one former head of Israeli military intelligence and have met ‘Omar Suleiman of Egypt. I've spoken to the DIA and most of the war colleges but have never worked for our or any other government. Kermit Roosevelt once served as President of the Middle East Institute and a former US Defense Intelligence Officer for the Middle East serves on my Board of Advisory Editors today. The number of ex-CIA analysts ensconced in Middle East think tanks in DC is considerable, and they are not all on one side of the ideological fence. I won't even start to name them.

If this is what really forced the resignation of Khanfar, it's too damned bad.

Oh: Khanfar's replacement? Sheikh Ahmad bin Jasem Al Thani, head of Qatargas, a member of he Al Jazeera Board, and, as his name should make obvious, a member of Qatar's royal family. He certainly has no questionable political links.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Burhanuddin Rabbani, 1940-2011

The assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani in Kabul today is a sign that hopes for negotiations with the Taliban are unlikely to bear fruit; it also marks the end of the career of an Islamic scholar turned guerrilla fighter turned politician, an intriguing career trajectory in the evolution of modern political Islam. An Afghan Tajik from Badakhshan, he was trained as a scholar of Islamic law and theology at Kabul and at Al-Azhar in Egypt. During his Egyptian stay it's said he was influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. Returning to Afghanistan he became involved in the Jamiat-e Islami movement, which he came to lead. He organized students at the University and, in the Soviet era, became an active mujahideen leader in the countryside. After the fall of the Soviet Union, he served as Afghan President 1992-96, whn ousted by the Taliban, and in the Northern Alliance thereafter. In 2001 he was briefly named President before the election of Hamid Karzai, and who named him to head the Peace Council seeking negotiations with the Taliban. He was respected as a scholar and a political leader.

Egypt's Electoral Calendar: Too Long?

Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has been meeting with political parties, explaining their proposed schedule for Parliamentary elections. Not everyone is happy. Elections, originally promised for September (that is, now) and delayed until November, would indeed begin on November 21 with the first of three rounds for the lower house (the People's Assembly), with those rounds concluding in January and followed by three rounds for the Upper House (the Shura Council), extending into April. Once a new Parliament is elected, it would in turn create a new constitution. Only once the new Constitution is in place would Presidential elections be held, sometime late next summer. Some details here.

The recent extension of the Emergency Law into next summer at the least, has led to suspicions that the military may not be as eager to transfer power as they claim. On the other hand, many of the newer parties originally wanted to delay elections until next year to allow longer time for party organizations to build infrastructure, fearing that early elections would favor the Muslim Brotherhood. The problem is that there is a growing sense that the revolution has lost its momentum, that the old guard is retrenching.

There are certainly political figures and parties urging a faster electoral calendar. One of the problems is a growing distrust of SCAF, which remains remarkably opaque in its decision-making.  Who is really making the decisions is anything but clear.

Ambassador Chamberlin on the Palestine Vote

MEI President Ambassador Wendy Chamberlin has a piece in Politico yesterday on not over-dramatizing the UN vote: "UN Palestine Vote: Time To Exhale."

Monday, September 19, 2011

Second MEI Revolution Series Volume Available

The second volume in MEI's Viewpoints series of publications on the Arab revolutions is now available.: "Revolution and Political Transformation in the Middle East: Volume II: Government Action and Response," with articles by five contributors. The link is to the informational page; thefull text is here (PDF)..

Yemen Forces Itself Back Into World's Consciousness

At least 50 demonstrators have died in violent clashes in Yemen in just two days. Though Yemen has been at a boil for months, the Libyan civil war, transition issues in Egypt, international pressures on Syria, and preoccupation with the Palestinian issue at the United Nations have competed for attention in a news cycle with limited interest int he Middle East, and generally won. Now Yemen is forcing itself back into the forefront.

Al Jazeera English on the latest violence here,and their live blog onYemen here. Marc Lynch on "The Costs of Ignoring Yemen," at Foreign Policy. A similar warning here, and a sounding-the-alarm statement from Amnesty International here.

Or take a look at the ongoing tweets from Freelance Journalist Tom Finn in Yemen.

Salih's on-again, off-again game playing with the GCC transition plan has played the GCC for the better part of the year now. Yet many of the press reports make it sound as if it's still likely to happen. Nothing about the regime forces' behavior in Sana‘a in the past couple of days suggests that.a transition is imminent. The world has been far more reactive to brutal repression in Libya and Syria. A cynic would suggest that Libya's oil and Syria's geopolitical position between Israel and Iran are the reason we aren't paying more attention to Yemen. But as the links above and others are increasingly echoing, Yemen is desccending into a bloody chaos from which no good will come. Even if it is only the presence of Al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula that caputres the world's attention, it's time to pay attention to Yemen again.

Senator Charles H. Percy, 1919-2011

Senator Charles H. "Chuck" Percy, onetime Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a major figure in Washington in the 1970s, died Saturday at the age of 91.

His New York Times obituary does not even mention the Middle East. Wikipedia does note that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in The Israel Lobby claim that his 1984 defeat by Paul Simon was a result of AIPAC's lobbying, as if this was their discovery. Let me assure you that it was widely recognized at the time, not least by Senator Percy, and some in AIPAC actually claimed they were responsible for the victory of Simon, bringing down the powerful Foreign Relations Committee chair. (The Senate was then in Republican hands.)

Percy was no rabid Arabist; he sought a balanced approach to Arab-Israeli issues, at a time when that was rare. He was a liberal Republican, a species extinct today outside of New England, where even there the faintest whiff of national Republican ambitions turns them conservative. (See Romney, Mitt.) He was also a Republican willing, on occasion and by no means as some kind of crusade, to criticize Israel. He became more outspoken out of office, as others have as well.

Friday, September 16, 2011

It's Edward William Lane's Birthday Again: Happy 210th!

Edward William Lane
Tomorrow, September 17, marks Edward William Lane's birthday yet again. This time it will be his 210th. As I've noted each year, I'm lucky enough as a fan of Egypt and Cairo to share a birthday with the author of The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Lane's Arabic-English Lexicon, a translation if the Arabian Nights, and more. (I am not, however, 210, though I will admit I'll be playing one particular track by Lennon and McCartney from the Sergeant Pepper album more than usual.)

For more on Lane, see the link above (noted again last year) and my comments on the Lane corpus (including his sister's and nephew's books) in my recent post on Cairo in the 19th century.

One of the more famous sections of Manners and Customs  is Lane's description of the ghawazi (he spells it Ghawazee) or class of dancing girls (seen by some as the ancestors of the belly dance) whose immoral (his characterization) performances he describes in sufficient detail to suggest that, despite his expressed distaste for their behavior, he studied them closely out of his devotion to anthropological knowledge, so I'll celebrate with his image of their dance. Happy 210th, Ed:

Tantawi Leads Khalid Nasser Funeral

Supreme Council of the Armed Forces leader Field Marshal Tantawi has led the funeral of Khalid Abdel Nasser, who died yesterday.

No, the effective ruler of Egypt does not attend the funeral of every civil engineering professor who dies, especially those once tried for sedition. But at a time when the military is under a lot of criticism, evoking the Nasser era may be a tactical move. Note this photo of the funeral from The Daily News Egypt:

Though I'll admit, there aren't that many young people in the crowd.

And note that while the last couple of days have had a lot of Egypt posts, I think we're all going to be looking at Palestinian issues a lot next week. The UN will be everybody's focus.

The AUC Strike

Today's theme at Midan al-Tahrir in Cairo was supposed to be a demand to end the State of Emergency, which instead was extended and strengthened a week ago after last Friday's violence and the attack on the Israeli Embassy. By most accounts, the turnout has been disappointingly low, perhaps due to fears of a crackdown.

Much of the twitter chatter among Egypt's young revolutionaries has been focused instead on events which occurred yesterday at the American University in Cairo (AUC). For some time now, students have been protesting high fees, and university workers have been protesting low wages; for the last few days AUC has been on strike. Yesterday two events drew considerable attention: University President Lisa Anderson walked away from a meeting with students that apparently turned confrontational, and protestors lowered an American flag. This apparently happened at the old campus on Tahrir Square, where the administration is, rather than at the new campus in New Cairo.

As some of the protestors have noted, these two events have perhaps been blown out of proportion, making the protests sound more anti-American and less about treatment of workers than they actually are. Many Egyptians see AUC as an elite school, which it certainly is, as well as a symbol of the US, but that really isn't apparently the core of these  protests. The students aren't taking a political stand but supporting university workers.

I have a certain fondness for AUC, having both studied there and, on one stay in Egypt, lived across the street from it, and I have little direct knowledge of the present protests. But it is one more indication that, whatever the next few months may bring in Egypt, the country remains a cauldron of shifting forces and new empowerment, which will be a challenge to the SCAF or any elected leadership.

On the AUC strike:  The Guardian has a piece here; Al-Masry Al-Youm here; and Zeinobia blogs her own useful perspective here, with many pictures. Activist Hossam al-Hamalawy collects links here, and this video comes via his site:

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Khalid Gamal Abdel Nasser Dies at 62

Khalid Gamal Abdel Nasser, the eldest son of the late President of Egypt, has died in Cairo today. He was only 62 and had been in a coma.

After his father's death, the younger Nasser broke with Anwar Sadat, criticized the peace treaty with Israel, and in 1988 was charged with belonging to a revolutionary organization. He was acquitted. In addition to his career as a civil engineer and professor, he remained a vocal critic of Sadat and Mubarak, andf earlier this year joined the demonstrators in Tahrir.

Erdogan's Rock-Star Tour of Egypt

 From the way it's looked the past three days, I think we now know who the favorite is for next President of Egypt: Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish Prime Minister was mobbed on his arrival. cheered most places he went, signed a lot of cooperation agreements with Egypt, spoke to the Arab League and a wide range of Egyptian institutions, met with Presidential candidates and revolutionary youth. Though the Muslim Brotherhood at first turned out to cheer him, he told them Egypt should be secular (they, in turn. warned Turkey against any regional ambitions). He criticized Israel, promised close ties with Egypt, and seems to have been treated like a rock star. Examples of reporting  from the visit here and here and here and here.

And it's just the first stop on his "Arab Spring" tour.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

18 Years After Oslo, Is It Time to Reshuffle the Deck?

The iconic moment at left took place 18 years ago yesterday. There were moments in the 1990s, when Yitzhak Rabin was still alive, that a real peace seemed possible. Both sides bear some of the responsibility for its failure, and so does the man in the middle, who pushed Camp David II before he had a real breakthrough in place. For all his posing as a freedom fighter, Arafat was a horribly cautious man. Mahmoud Abbas is nowhere near as charismatic as Arafat, but he does seem more willing to take risks. Arafat knew when to hold 'em and knew when to fold 'em, but wasn't the sort to raise the ante when he wasn't holding a good hand. Is Abbas? It's starting to look like it: or maybe he's holding a better hand than his opponents think.

On October 6, 1973, Anwar Sadat sent Egyptian forces across the Suez Canal. For the first time in an Arab-Israeli war, there was virtually none of the "drive Israel into the sea" sort of rhetoric and a lot of rhetoric about recovering Sinai.  In most military senses the Egyptians ended that war on the losing side: they had a whole Field Army surrounded and cut off from Cairo by an Israeli strike force west of the Canal. But Sadat was able to reopen the Canal and get parts of Sinai back because Henry Kissinger started his shuttle diplomacy. Sadat won a diplomatic, not a conventional military, victory, because he'd had the daring to reshuffle the deck, and also to introduce wild cards (throwing the Russians out: tilting toward the Americans.) (Okay; I'll try hard to refrain from further poker metaphors in the rest of this post.)

An interesting number of people in the blogosphere and media are asking what would be so disastrous if the United States, which claims to want a two-state solution, accepted a United Nations recognition of Palestine. It would be hard, though I'm sure they'd find a way, for Israel to claim that the UN has no right to do that since, well, Israel was created directly through United Nations action. For political reasons and others, the US  will veto any Security Council resolution, but if Palestine wins a big General Assembly vote, the calculus will change.

The US would indeed further isolate itself, as Prince Turki al-Faisal has noted in the NYT, in what seems to be a nearly open Saudi threat to break with the US on this.  Even peace-leaning Israeli commentators are expressing the wish that Israel had sought to constructively engage (and perhaps even forestall) a UN vote, rather than simply throw down the gauntlet of defiance.

I don't really expect the US Administration, beleaguered by economic difficulties and political attacks, to go out on a limb. And I don't expect an Israel under Netanyahu and Lieberman to take daring risks. But neither we nor Israel may be in the driver's seat here. And perhaps we should at least ask ourselves: would s dramatic change in the status quo be a disaster, or perhaps create an opportunity for new thinking.

One last poker image: is it time not just to up the ante, but to kick over the card table and see who's holding what when you pick it up again? It worked for Sadat in 1973.

Wael Ghonim: A Letter to Tantawi

At a moment many see as a low point in Egypt's democratic struggle, Wael Ghonim, one of the figures who came to prominence during the revolution, writes an online letter to Field Marshal Tantawi.

Ahram Online: Eyewitness to Embassy Storming

Not sure how many parts there may be, but here are Ahram Online's  Part I and Part II of an eyewitness account of the storming of the Israeli Embassy.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Lameen Souag vs. Wikileaks on "Algeria's Language Crisis"

Less than two weeks ago I was delighted to note that the Algerian SOAS linguist Lameen Souag, who studies Berber and Saharan African linguistics, had returned from a hiatus (including getting married, apparently) to return to his blog Jabal al-Lughat (Arabic for "the mountain of languages"). As it happens, I'm linking to him yet again.

Scholars, bloggers, and the just plain curious have been struggling to cope with the mountain of document dumps Wikileaks dumped because its password protection had been compromised. The people who have time to comb through this stuff have a lot more time on their hands than I do, so I hope to always credit them when I use something they've found. He's noted a Wikileaks cable from the US Embassy in Algiers, dated 2008, entitled "Trilingual Illiterates: Algeria's Language Crisis."

He has done a careful deconstruction of the cable, which deserves your close attention, since the cable itself seems based on misinformation and misconceptions.

Regular readers know I'm interested in language issues in our region, in Arabic itself and the whole issue of diglossia, the distinction between spoken Arabic dialects and the literary/written language; as well as minority languages, such as the Tamazight spoken by the North African Berber population. So this memo is irresistible to me, but unlike Lameen Souag, who's an Algerian linguist, I've never even  set foot in Algeria. Nor do I want to pile on in criticizing American diplomats' linguistic naivete: a very old friend of mine whose Arabic, in classical and multiple dialects, is superb and who also can speak in scholarly terms about comparative Semitics (now his main focus in retirement), once served as Public Affairs Officer at the US Embassy in Algeria. Not, however, as late as 2008; the linguistic generalizations in this memo suggest a rather superficial understanding he would never have conveyed.

First, read the memo linked above; then, read Lameen Souag's excellent deconstruction. What follows are my own thoughts: again, I've never even visited the country, though there are similar issues in Morocco and Tunisia, which I know.

I was struck by this:
Algeria's language crisis is unique in the Arab world, given the country's turbulent history and the existence of an entire generation fluent only in a linguistic collage known as "Algerian." Diplomats coming to Algeria after serving elsewhere in the region are amazed that Algerians rarely finish a sentence in the same language they started it in. 
As Lameen notes, this is not only an issue in most of the Francophone Arab world (I once heard a Lebanese get three languages into four words — "Pourquois are you za‘lan?" — but that's hardly news); it also profoundly misunderstands what "Algerian," apparently meaning the spoken language of daily life, actually is. Assuming he means darja, spoken Algerian, it is no more a "collage" than spoken Egyptian, or Moroccan, or Iraqi, or (perhaps most relevant), Lebanese. As Lameen notes:
The idea that Darja is "useless" I already addressed above: how can the primary language you need for everyday life almost everywhere in the country be dismissed as "useless"! Darja itself, in general, is not a particularly mixed language: it's a coherent Arabic dialect with an unusual number of words taken from French, but with its grammar essentially unchanged from the dialect of Arabic already spoken in Algeria before the French arrived. If it's a "linguistic collage", what are we to say of English, more than half of whose vocabulary derives from French or Latin?

However, there are some parts of Algeria - mainly Algiers and its surroundings - where many people commonly practise code-switching and code-mixing, ie the incorporation of whole phrases and sentences from French into a conversation whose main language is Darja. I personally find this practice irritating, and inconsiderate when directed towards strangers: you can usually take it for granted that another Algerian will be fluent in Darja, but many Algerians speak French haltingly or not at all, and peppering your speech with French phrases tends to make them feel unwelcome. But it's certainly not "useless" from an educational perspective; to the contrary, it causes Algerois who would otherwise have little occasion to use French to maintain a fairly high level of conversational fluency in it, and keeps them in practice. Nor is it "useless" from a practical perspective: being able to comprehend this mix is a fairly essential skill in Algiers, as important in commercial contexts as in social encounters. And, in my experience, the most persistent language-mixers aren't the uneducated at all: they're the ones who speak the best French, and either find it easier to express some thoughts in French or want to make very sure you don't take them for country bumpkins. It's also worth emphasising that code-switching isn't some kind of uniquely Algerian pathology: it happens in almost every genuinely bilingual society, all over the world.

Adding to the seeming lack of understanding of the role of colloquial Arabic (darja or darija in North Africa; lahja or ‘amiyya farther east) is the cable's conclusion: the need to teach everybody English. The Maghreb as a whole would open new vistas for business an tourism, but is adding a "fourth" language the real solution to "trilingual illiterates"?

And I must comment on this passage in the cable:
Over an iftar dinner at the Ambassador's residence towards the end of Ramadan, several Algerian business representatives lamented what they called the "lost generation" of Algerian workers, who are left out largely because of their inability to function at a professional level in any single language. Ameziane Ait Ahcene, Northrup Grumman's deputy director for Algeria, complained that he had to recruit in francophone Europe to find skilled accountants and engineers who were fluent in spoken and written French.
My first note is that a US diplomat seems (unless the typo is Wikileaks') to not know how to spell Northrop Grumman.

My second is to note that, 1) of course, the business community is going to want better French, even in a country like Tunisia that hasn't downplayed its role so much; and 2) "Ameziane Ait Ahcene" might strike even a non-Arabist as not looking very Arabic. That's because all three parts of the name are Berber. (Though I think Ahcene may be related to Ihsan.) And Berbers have always resisted the Arabization program and clung to French. As I've noted multiple times, I've never set foot in Algeria and I knew that immediately. Did the author of this cable?

Blind Lead Blind; Sensationally Unreliable Quote Sensationally Unreliable

Here's an opportunity to link to two sites I never link to, mostly because I'll bet they've never linked to each other before. But it's fun to see the sensational propagandists of utterly different ideologies quoting one another. One is the Israeli site DEBKA, which purports to convey inside intelligence information about the Middle East. It's often sensational; more to the point it's quite frequently dead wrong. They even have a subscription service, but don't bother: if Israeli intelligence was this bad they'd be out of business. Recently they had a piece about how Qadhafi is still in charge pretty much everywhere except in Tripoli and Benghazi, and how he has the solid support of the Tuareg (a small minority now fleeing into Niger and Algeria). Not, in short, what the international TV crews are seeing on the ground.

Well, now a website known as Mathaba has picked up and reproduced the story as "Gaddafi in Full Control — Has Support of Saharan and Tuareg tribes.".

While acknowledging DEBKA as the source, they don't identify its Israeli identity. And who is "Mathaba.net"? As they put it:

MATHABA is the world's leading independent news agency and a major online news network. We have the most advanced and effective news distribution . . . Founded in 1999, MATHABA became the first stateless news organization in history. 
Really?  Oh, and they too have a paid service available. A little searching finds a reference to them at greencharters.com which oddly enough also offers on its website a work known as The Green Book (hint: it's not about environmentalism). (If you've never read it go ahead and click. It's about to be a historical artifact anyway.)

Yes indeed. the last-ditch Qadhafi website is quoting a hardline rightwing Israeli propaganda website.

Everything that's loony must converge.

On the other hand, I think the "Gaddafi in Full Control" headline requires, as I would tell an author whose article I was editing, rather better sourcing.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Egypt: Emergency Law Extended to Mid-2012

 Earlier I noted the growing security crackdown in Egypt; Marc Lynch has also written about the dangers that the disorders could be very bad news for the Egyptian revolution. As part of the current security crackdown, the Military Council has said that the Emergency Law, which has also been amended, will be extended to at least mid-2012.

Of course if everything goes according to the alleged schedule, a new Parliament and President should be in place before then, Earlier pledges to end the Emergency Law as soon as possible are now off the table, and it doesn't sound as if the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces plans to just go away after elections.

And of course, that raises the question of what exactly is going to happen with the elections. Tunisia is on track to begin its campaign for a constituent assembly, and Egypt still seems to be thinking about what happens next.

Most of the agenda of the Friday demonstrations had to do with getting the process back on track, but the violence against the Israeli Embassy has sidetracked that and discredited many of the demonstrators. (An attempt was also made to storm the Saudi Embassy, which failed and thus got little attention.) It could prove to be a rather unfortunate tipping point.

To end on a positive note, however, I'd refer you to this post of Sandmonkey's; it was posted before Friday's violence,  but its message is an encouraging one: the real achievement of the revolution is the realization that the people can bring about change. That won't go away even if there are setbacks on the road.

Are We Facing a Gathering "Perfect Storm" in the Region?

A week ago IDF Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg, the Home Front Commander, made headlines for saying that Arab Spring could lead to an increase in the chances of a regional war. Other Israeli officials backpedaled quickly, but in the wake of the deepening crisis between Israel and Turkey and now the attack on the Israeli Embassy in Egypt, there seems to be a growing sense of tightening siege in Israel. (I know, of course, that residents of Gaza would find it ironic that Israel feels besieged when they are far more literally so, but the fact is that when Israel feels threatened — justifiably or not — it has often resorted to military action. Two of Israel's once dependable allies, Turkey and Egypt, are no longer so dependable for quite different reasons. And the United Nations debate on recognizing the Palestinian Authority as an independent state is looming, with many members of the European Union likely to support the Palestinian effort, despite US and Israeli opposition. If Israel feels that it is increasingly isolated, again rightly or wrongly, the dangers of conflict do escalate.

That this is a dangerous time is indisputable. I may be grasping at straws, but I do find it encouraging that there really doesn't seemto be any party that wants a \war, regional or limited. Some Israelis might welcome another round in Gaza or against Hizbullah, but probably not just now. While some in Egypt might welcome a distraction, no one, not even the Islamists, wants a war. The Palestinian Authority wants legitimacy, not war. Whether the UN ploy brings that closer or makes it more remote is certainly debatable, and since it's being discussed so many places I haven't felt eager to get into it here. It is, however, going to be a rough ride, given so many converging uncertainties. One should hope for cool heads and cautious diplomacy, with revolutions still simmering and Israel jittery. 

The Embassy Attack: a Rorschach Test for Commentators

 The Friday night/Saturday morning assault on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo has provoked not only the expected international reactions (alarm in Israel, expressions of concern in Washington), but has also has proven to be a sort of Rorschach test for commentators. Israelis and strong supporters of Israel see it as a sign that the "Arab Spring" marks a radicalization of the Arab world and is to be lamented; secularists worry that it suggests a victory for radical Islam (though most of the demonstrators were football support groups, the Ahly "Ultras" and Zamalek White Knights, who are sports enthusiasts rather than Islamists); many young revolutionaries suspect the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces allowed it to happen in order to spread a sense of growing disorder, thus justifying continued military rule and a postponement of elections.

So far, the worst prognostications have not been borne out; Egyptian-Israeli relations are at a low ebb, but neither side seems eager to terminate them. Whether the SCAF really is allowing increasing \clashes to occur for its own ends or due to its own haplessness is a matter of opinion. Here's a selection of English-language commentary from a variety of Egyptian and Israeli sources.

First, a Video from Al-Masry Al-Youm:

A timeline of the events here, from the Jerusalem Post.

A claim that Egypt had asked Israel to have its Ambassador take a holiday from Ahram Online here; and an Israeli take on that report at Haaretz here; Details of the continuing arrests here,  the Muslim Brotherhood's official response, which devotes only a couple of lines to the Israeli embassy but condemns the violence overall; and a Salafi reaction here (it works in favor of Israel and "was not well thought out."

Several of the regular contributors at The Arabist have offered views:  Issandr El Amrani here; Steve Negus here; and Ursula Lindsey on the role of the Ultras here. Also see Bassem Sabry at Bikya Masr, and the always observant Zeinobia. (And her earlier post here.)

Haaretz on the state of relations here. The Jerusalem Post on reoopening the embassy here.

Related or not, there's a growing crackdown by the government on foreign media, especially satellite TV; Al Jazeera's live channel from Egypt,  Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, has been raided and suspended.

The crackdown may also be why Saudi Arabia is shifting its satellite transmissions from Egypt's Nilesat to the inter-Arab Arabsat.

Certainly the Embassy attack is a serious moment in the history of the Egyptian revolution, or could spell trouble for its future; but the many and varied responses so far suggest the current commentary often has more to do with the preconceptions of the commentators than the actual facts. A dangerous time nonetheless.

New MEI Bulletin

The latest edition of our newsletter, the MEI Bulletin, is now available online. (PDF)

Egypt Visa Decision "Frozen"

This is just to get the day and the week's posts started.  Rest assured I'm preparing a major, and I hope thoughtful, comment and links post on the assault on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo Friday night/Saturday morning. But till that goes up, I though I'd note that, while I'm sure my own derisive comments about Egypt's self-defeating new visa regulations had nothing to do with it,  enough other people recognized the shoot-self-in-foot element that the Egyptian Cabinet has "frozen" the decision to stop issuing visas to tourists from the US and Europe etc. at the airport.

I assume "frozen" in this case means "made to disappear down the memory hole."

Again, I'll be back soon with reflections on the weekend's insanity.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Some Thoughts for the 9/11 Anniversary

 The 10th Anniversary of September 11, 2001, is going to totally dominate US media this weekend. I want to record a few thoughts here. For now, I'm leaving comments open, but if there is too much "Truther" conspiracy commentary, I may have to close comments.

Some of my overseas readers may wonder why Americans have focused so centrally on this event, Part of the answer is that unlike most of the peoples of the Middle East and Europe, we had come to think of ourselves as invulnerable between our two ocean barriers. In World War II, as armies ravaged Europe, the Soviet Union, and China, we suffered only in the far Pacific. As Abraham Lincoln put it in 1838:
How then shall we perform it?--At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?-- Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!--All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

Lincoln was making the point that the only threat to the United States came from within. But on September 11 the United States learned that a globalized world meant our imagined invulnerabilities were no more: foreign terrorists could strike at the financial heart of our largest city, and at the Pentagon itself, without warning.  The world had changed.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (the latter at least clearly a "war of choice" for the US, also still go on a decade later. The effect of the events of 9/11 on the US image in the world, and particularly the Middle East, is profound; the attitude towards American Muslims in the decade since 9/11 has emphasized one of the darker strains of America's national attitudes.

On that beautiful fall morning a decade ago, I had watched the first plane hit the first tower, and as I was leaving for work watched the second. I noted that there might also be attempts on Washington, and started driving to work. As I was driving on US 50 in Northern Virginia, approaching Fort Myer, I saw a large billowing plume of black smoke, directly ahead of me. The all-news radio was still focused on New York, but I knew the plume was from the direction of the Pentagon, a building I knew well from an earlier incarnation as a writer on defense. Trying to reach my wife by cell phone, I discovered there was no signal (everyone was doing what I was doing), so I turned the car around and headed home. I spent the day with my wife and then-year-old daughter, whom we'd adopted in July of 2001.

When I saw that black plume of smoke — and it was visible for a long while — it reminded me that I had actually seen black smoke rise above Washington, DC once before: on April 5, 1968, when the city was rocked by riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the night before. I  was an undergrad then, and flying out for Easter I had a view of the rising plumes of smoke from National Airport. It's odd that I bracket 1968, a year of profound divisions in the US, with 9/11 in my mind, but I hope I never see another black cloud rising above DC.

Agha and Malley: a Somber Take on Arab Spring

Arab Spring, though it's now moving into Fall, is still a work in progress. Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in the New York Review of Books offer a somber, somewhat pessimistic assessment of where things go from here, calling it "The Arab Counterrevolution." A tip of the hat to The Arabist for the link, and for his comment that he hopes for a more optimistic outcome.

I Wish I'd Said That: Sadjadpour on Iran/Syria

President Ahmadinejad's public urging of the Asad government not to use force against protestors is curious, given how dependent Iran is on the Syrian alliance. But no comment I can make would be as good as the one Karim Sadjadpour of Carnegie has in the NYT:
"Iran calling for Syria to dialogue rather than use force against its population is akin to Silvio Berlusconi telling Charlie Sheen not to womanize,” said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who is a sharp critic of the Iranian leadership.

Faced With Declining Tourism, Egyptian Cabinet Shoots Self in Foot (or Possibly Head?)

OK, for my rocket scientist readers and others, ponder this one: You've got the world's most ancient civilization (OK, Iraq has a case, but tourism isn't big there right now), the only surviving one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (pointy structures conveniently near your capital city with lots of five-star hotels), a huge and longstanding tourism infrastructure with many guides speaking European languages,  and are dependent on tourism for hard currency. And, since you had this little revolution thingy a few months back that was on all the TV channels, your tourism revenues are sharply down this summer, though starting to improve a bit. So what do you do about it? You there with your hand up, yes, you: The Egyptian Cabinet, you say? And your answer is . . .

Let's tighten the visa requirements so visitors can't get visas at the airport anymore!

Oh, that makes sense . . . wait . . . What?

Also see here, and here, which suggests this is not some kind of fever hallucination.

While a certain amount of incoherent stammering seems the proper reaction, a lot of Egyptian bloggers and tweeters immediately noted the seeming insanity of this move. Yes, the US and most European and major Asian nations require prior visas for entering Egyptians. Yes, a certain reciprocity would be preferable. (Good luck with that on the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Muhammad Atta was Egyptian, and so's Ayman al-Zawahiri.)

I know: it doesn't apply to tourists arriving in groups Good: you only severely wounded your tourist influx, and didn't strangle it outright. Yes, when I was going to Egypt in the 1970s and early 1980s you needed a visa beforehand (But the US didn't even have diplomatic relations when I first went out, and tourism was at a historic low ebb.) Yes, there's an undercurrent of xenophobia right now, but you still need the tourist trade. Yes, there's an undercurrent of popular paranoia about foreign spies. Hint: they're already there as diplomats, businessmen, or somebody else that stays longer than tourists.

Did the Egyptian Cabinet come up with this in response to rising xenophobia, or was it the SCAF in response to their own sensitivity about foreign influence? Or did somebody in the bureaucracy just decide, hey, let's try this?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Some Recent Egypt Links on the Eve of a Major Protest

On the eve of another big demonstration in Tahrir, here are a few useful recent links on Egyptian themes:

The SCAF is warning against violence; the Islamists are boycotting the protest, and tomorrow could be tense. The rally is intended tor estore the momentum of the revolution, demand an end to military courts trying civilians, and a list of other demands.

New MEI Viewpoints: Public Health in the Middle East

There's a new MEI Viewpoints publication: Public Health in the Middle East: Building a Healthy Future, with contributions from six specialists in the field. The information page is at the link. The full report (in PDF) is here.

Two Words You Never Expected to See Together

"Morocco" and "SlutWalk". Read the article for more. (Link was broken. Now fixed.)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

EEK! It's an Al Jazeera Reporter!

I rarely deal with the wilder shores of American Islamophobia/Arabophobia because I assume anyone reading me is not reading them, and vice versa. Oh, sure, sometimes it's irresistible, as in spring 2010's Miss USA furor, when Rima Fakih, a Lebanese-American of mixed Shi‘ite-Christian background who posed in a leopard-skin bikini (photos at the link for historical and educational purposes only) and whose family in South Lebanon fly a huge American flag from their house, was accused of being a Hizbullah mole. When it was learned she'd posed topless, but with her back to the camera, that proved it. Somehow. And I also noted it when Switzerland, with a 5% Muslim population and a total of four minarets in the entire country, voted to ban minarets.  But Jon Stewart's take was so much funnier than mine that I gave up on that issue.

But I have not yet dealt with the issue of Al Jazeeraphobia. Al Jazeera was the pioneer of Arab satellite television, and being based in Doha, Qatar, they have long been pretty free to criticize other Arab countries and regimes. (Qatar is immune, but pretty much only Qatar. The Saudis, Mubarak's Egypt, and other Arab countries hate Al Jazeera, but they have by far provided the best coverage of the Arab revolutionary movements. Though Bahrain is a traditional rival of Qatar's, they've been a bit cautious there, but not elsewhere. As a result Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria have all accused them of seditious plotting. This is usually a good sign.)

Though Al Jazeera has been around for quite a while and Al Jazeera English has a growing reputation as one of the finest non-Western-based cable news channels in English, Al Jazeera's reputation in the US has always been somewhere between spotty and downright hostile. Many people know nothing of it other than it has received certain Usama bin Ladin tapes before anyone else. Most Americans cannot even see Al Jazeera English: in a few markets such as New York and Washington, it's available as an extra cable package or in some broadcast HD side-channels, but most can't get it even if they want it, which is why Al Jazeera English offers a Watch Live link on their website. 

I don't agree with everything Al Jazeera Arabic or Al Jazeera English broadcast, but they do broadcast multiple viewpoints. Instead of Voltaire's classic, "I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it," much of the criticism of Al Jazeera amounts to "I disagree with what (I imagine) you say (though I haven't actually read it or heard it) so I will not only fight against your right to say it but also against your saying anything at all." If much of their coverage of the Middle East is critical of US policy, that's simply a reflection of the  current opinion on the ground.

What provoked this rant are some recent incidents emphasizing the US attitude towards Al Jazeera.

First off, my former MEI colleague and now Al Jazeera English correspondent Clayton Swisher, who  broke the Palestine Papers story, big news in Israel, Palestine, and the Arab World, though mostly ignored in the US, recently had a post on the recent Wikileaks uncensored document dump in which he studied the attitudes toward Al Jazeera in some of the US Embassy Cables. From Clayton's blogpost:

And right now I'm thinking about how they made sources out of just about everyone they spoke with, in many instances without their permission. That was obvious as I waded through the trove of US Embassy Doha cables related to my employer, Al Jazeera.
We may have been hailed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for doing real news when she spoke to the Senate this year. But thanks to WikiLeaks, we now know that, not even five years ago, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was scaremongering to then-US Ambassador to Qatar that "Al Jazeera is killing Americans".

The result? Under the Bush Administration, numerous US diplomats began cycling in and out of Al Jazeera. Senior network staff became targets of "information warfare", and as they followed the Arab customs of offering tea and dates to visiting dignitaries, we now know the US ambassador was reading off a tightly prepared script of questions submitted by the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).

Even rank-and-file journalists were probed by the Americans' passive elicitation. Doha-based US diplomats seemed to want grist to feed their White House audience on the "we're-losing-Mideast-wars-because-of-Jazeera" narrative.
Yet Qatar, Al Jazeera's home, and the Royal Family of which is the patron, sustainer and at least partial owner of Al Jazeera, is a critical ally in the US position in the Gulf.

But Clayton's post was from several days ago. What prompted this really was this report from an Al Jazeera English correspondent, making a road trip across the US in preparation for the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, who tried to interview people at a high school football game in Texas:  "Welcome to Texas! Unless You're Al Jazeera".

The journalist is Brazilian. But when he presents his business card:
She said she was out of business cards, so I reached into my back pocket, pulled out my wallet, grabbed by business card, and handed it to Mrs. Yauck.

I don't think anything can wipe that double-wide smile off Mrs Yauck’s face. But my Al Jazeera business card does the job pretty quick.“So you’re from Al Jazeera,” Mrs Yauck says in a sharp tone, still looking down at my card. Looking up at me, she adds quickly, “ So what’s your spin on this story?”

“I don’t have a spin,” I say, still smiling to try to ease any sudden tension. “What I told you is exactly what I want to do. Just talk to people, film a bit. That is it. Nothing more. Nothing less.”

“But you’re with Al Jazeera?”

“Yes,” I say proudly, still smiling.

But Mrs Yauck is again staring down at my business card.

“Our superintendent is here, let me just go talk to him and I’ll be right back.”

Ultimately, he is told he can neither film nor interview.

Now, admittedly, and it's important to note that Al Jazeera is noting this as well, the school official involved is insisting that he was preoccupied with other issues and disputing some details of the account.
But the mere fact that the first person to see the journalist kicked the matter upstairs, apparently because it was Al Jazeera, is where things went astray.

America: Al Jazeera was the first Arab news channel, other than official Egyptian and Jordanian channels, to interview Israeli leaders regularly. Before you proclaim them the enemy, watch them a bit. Online anyways, since your local cable probably doesn't offer them.

Now That All the Country's Other Problems are Solved, Iran Cracks Down on Water Fights in Parks

Facebook and Twitter and the Internet have already been identified as evil Western tools in Iran, but now they've found a new threat: the SuperSoaker Revolution. After an apparently exuberant if harmless fight in a Tehran Park in July, in which young men (and young women) enjoyed a water fight using water guns, Iran's authorities, led by the religious police (why do I find that term an oxymoron wherever it is used?), are cracking down. AP here; a piece in The Wall Street Journal here,  and one from the UAE's The National here.

Gad: they're scared of water guns now? Isn't it better to give the young people an outlet of some kind than to bottle it all up?

This quote from The National's account may offer a clue:
"The people who involve in such actions are either stupid or not respectful of the law," Mr Radan said. "The police will not allow them to achieve their goals and will confront the main organisers" of such events.
In late July, several hundred youths took part in a huge water fight using plastic water pistols as well as bottled water at the same venue in heat-weary Tehran, arranging the event on Facebook and through mobile text messages.
Ten of them were arrested as photos of boys and girls in drenched clothing emerged on social networking websites and eventually made their way into the media, to the anger of conservatives.
The chief of the country's morality police, General Ahmad Rouzbahani, warned then that the police would act forcefully against such events happening "in public places, or anywhere throughout the country".
Okay. Facebook was involved, so the threat of organized demonstrations — if you can organize a SuperSoaker fight, you can organize a political demonstration — may be part of it.  The reference to "photos of boys and girls in drenched clothing" suggests that someone, perhaps "the chief of the country's morality police," got tied in knots by the idea of young women in wet T-shirts, though there is no indication that was the result. And are the women allowed out in just T-shirts, anyway? Was this a wet chador incident? I doubt that, somehow.

And maybe it's just the idea that there's something seditious about young folk having fun.

When water guns are banned, only  criminals will have water guns.

An "Angie's List" Approach to Egyptian Handymen

Via a tweet from the indispensable @sandmonkey, who has also produced an epic series of tweets I hope he consolidates somewhere so I can link to his whole rant, Here's an intriguing website suggesting that the Egyptian revolution is opening up new vistas online: a site, Sana‘i, or as they put it, sanay3y.com, listing Egyptian handymen in various specialties and various parts of Cairo, with the ability to make online comments. A sort of Egyptian Angie's List for handymen.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Kamal Salibi, 1929-2011

The preeminent historian of modern Lebanon, Kamal Salibi, died September 1 at the age of 82. Appreciations of him can be found at The Daily Star, and at Jadaliyya. His Wikipedia entry is here.

His works on the modern history of Lebanon (including one called The Modern History of Lebanon), and other work on modern Jordan published during his time in Amman, cement his reputation as a major historian of the modern Arab world  Coming from Lebanon's rather small Protestant community, he was a persistent critic of Lebanon's sectarian system, which he saw as at the root of many of its modern problems. A graduate of AUB with a doctorate from SOAS, where he worked under Bernard Lewis, his reputation as a historian of modern Lebanon is secure.

Since the 1980s, however, he pursued another subject which, I fear, may cast a certain shadow over his reputation; the Jadaliyya and Wikipedia articles linked above mention it: he became convinced that the events of the Bible, including the location of such sites as Jerusalem and the Jordan, all took place not in Palestine but in Arabia. He used arguments over the Semitic roots of various toponyms to make his case, convincing very few, since the argument flies in the face of all the historical and archaeological evidence.  Beyond the sheer heterodoxy of the idea, it did not sit well with Saudi Arabia, who suspected it could be used by Israel to make territorial claims against the Kingdom (though Israeli Biblical scholars naturally ignored it). I've read some of his work on the subject, and found it overly reliant on etymology as opposed to evidence. When a specialist in one field, modern history, wanders off the reservation into another as a new hobbyhorse, the results can be unfortunate. His particular preoccupation with this eccentric theory of the Bible should, however, in no way diminish his reputation as a historian of both modern Lebanon and modern Jordan, or as an influential teacher of generations of AUB historians.

I have met him and heard him speak, though I believe only once in each case, and am sure he was a great teacher; even when off on his Biblical theory he could be persuasive, and he will be missed.

The Mubarak Trial: Even Off TV, It's Still Divisive

Zeinobia live-blogged the resumption of the Mubarak trial yesterday. Though no longer being televised live, it still offers plenty of drama and pathos. I also still agree with Mahmoud Salem ("Sandmonkey") that it will last for years and, if Mubarak is still alive, he'll get house arrest. The sons will get prison time and then go enjoy their spoils in Europe or somewhere, and the second-string officials (if anyone) will pay the real penalty. Meanwhile, his lawyers will play up the sympathy:

Or here in the video:

You know, I really think there are better ways. When Nasser deposed his predecessor, Muhammad Naguib.  Naguib went into a long-term house arrest and became an Orwellian "unperson," but re-emerged as an old man after Sadat died and Mubarak took over. True, he died soon after, but now, belatedly, he has a subway station named for him. (Mubarak Station, a major hub, is now Martyr's Station.) Admittedly, revolutionary-and-maybe-becoming-democratic Egypt can't just unperson him as Nasser did Naguib.

Vengeance and retribution are deeply human, if not very admirable, motives. If Mubarak had killed or imprisoned a relative of mine (or me), I'd want to hang him too, but I also recognize the dangers of going after an ailing, aged octogenarian who is wheeled into the courtroom on a gurney. (I realize that may be courtroom theater, but it's effective with many who aren't quite sure about this revolution.) Back in the seventies when, after Watergate and Nixon's resignation, Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon, the move was extremely unpopular at the time and guaranteed Jimmy Carter's election in 1976; while I shared those opinions at the time, I think Ford could today be considered for an update of JFK's Profiles in Courage for committing what he must have known was political suicide in order to spare the country from a horrifically divisive trial of a former President.

The clashes outside the Mubarak trial yesterday remind us that nothing is secure yet, and a Thermidorian reaction might even come before and forestall a Jacobin Terror.  Tunisia was lucky in that Ben Ali left the country so they can try him in absentia all they want, with no effect; Libya is lucky in that Qadhafi announced he planned to burn the whole country to the ground and has few sympathizers who aren't themselves war criminals. The Egyptian case is trickier and more explosive. As I've noted before, I'm delighted he's being tried in regular civilian courts, and not in some revolutionary court, and charged only with crimes that are in the statutes, not something made up for the occasion. But yesterday's drama was disturbing.  It's no longer a show trial in the courtroom, but it's still divisive.