A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, February 28, 2014

When the Crimea Was a Muslim Power

Most of the reporting of the crisis in the Crimea has focused on ethnic Russians battling ethnic Ukrainians, but there is another ethnicity that ruled Crimea before either country: The Crimean Tartars. Under the pressure of Russification and, during World War II, of mass deportations to Central Asia and ethnic cleansing by Stalin,they are a minority in Crimea today. But from 1441 to 1783 the Crimean Khanate was a major cultural and political player between the expanding Tsarist State and the Ottoman Empire.

Crimean Khanate c. 1600 (Wikipedia)
The Khanate originated as a tribal secessionist movement from the larger Khanate of the Golden Horde. They proclaimed a descendant of Genghis Khan, Haci Giray, as their Khan. Though originating as an offshoot of the old Mongol Empire, the Crimean Tartars spoke three distinct Turkic dialects. In 1441, after a lengthy war, the Crimean Tartars won independence of the Golden Horde, ruling most of Crimea and adjacent areas of the Russian and Ukrainian steppe.

During a succession struggle, the Ottomans intervened and drove out the last Greek and Genoese colonies from the Crimean coast. The Ottomans kept the coast but left the Khanate to rule the rest as an Ottoman protectorate. Over the centuries the Tartars had been Islamized, maintaining an independent policy in loose alliance with the Ottomans.

In the 16th century the Khanate sought to portray itself as the heir of the Golden Horde and claim sovereignty over Kazan and Astrakhan, leading it into a direct rivalry with the rising Russian state. Successive wars drove back the Ottomans and brought the khanate more and more under Russian influence; in 1783, Catherine the Great annexed the Crimea to Russia. At the time, he Tartars are estimated to have constituted 98% of the population.

In the 19th century there was a reawakening of Tartar ethnic identity, and after the Bolshevik Revolution there was a Crimean Autonomous Republic. At that point the Crimean Tartars were still over 20% of the population.

Even before World War II, Stalin's ethnic policies began to repress Tartar nationalism, with widespread arrests and deportations. The language was banned and Russification imposed. Then came the German invasion in 1941, which drove into the Crimea seeking to reach the oilfields of the Caucasus. After Russia rolled back the Nazis, Stalin accused the Crimean Tartars of collaboration with the enemy. On May 18, 1944, the entire surviving population of Crimean Tartars were deported en masse, mostly to Uzbekistan but also to other Soviet regions. Half are said to have died en route. (The Chechens were also accused off collaboration and deported.) It was ethnic cleansing on a vast scale.

Tartar place names were replaced with Russian and the Crimean Autonomous Republic became first, a mere region. Then, in 1954, Crimea, previously part  of the Russian Republic of the USSR, was transferred to Ukraine, which adds to the tensions today.

It was not until 1989, in the waning days of the USSR, that the Soviet Union finally allowed the Crimean Tartars (and the Volga Germans, also deported) to return to their homelands, and only in the 1990s did the return gain momentum. The number back in Crimea is probably below 200,000, a distinct minority (11% or 12% at most) settled on relatively poor lands.

They not only remember their exile (which ended only in the 1990s) but, like the Chechens, are not terribly fond of the Russian populations that replaced them in their homeland. Need I tell you that in the past few days they have been regularly clashing with ethnic Russians in Crimea, which otherwise dominates that region?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The 10 Best Arab Films?

Via The Guardian. A matter of opinion of course, and since I think I've only seen three of these myself, I probably shouldn't judge.

Sisi Still in the Defense Ministry of New Cabinet

The idea that this week's Egyptian Cabinet reshuffle was to facilitate Field Marshal Sisi's departure to run for President never struck me as being as obvious as some thought it; for now, at least, Sisi has remained in the Defense Ministry, and today a new decree reorganized the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces under the Defense Minister.

Assuming, as most do, that Sisi is going to run, when will he step down? That may become clearer once we see the Presidential Elections Law, expected by March 1.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Egypt Has Survived Wars, Revolutions, and Even the Biblical Plagues of Moses. But THIS?

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

A Couple of Egyptian Links: Expats and Comic Books

 A couple of links for the Egypt hands:

"The 10 Types of Expats You Meet in Cairo." (Which notes though that these days "only the crazies are left.")


Nadim Damluji, "The Comic Book Heroes of Egypt." A detailed little history of the Egyptian comics. This fills a real need.

EIPR Issues New Study on Reproductive Health and Rights in MENA

The Egyptian Initiative on Personal Rights (EIPR), marking the 20th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), has released a major new report, “Reclaiming and Redefining Rights: ICPD+20 Status of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Middle East and North Africa”. You can read the press release here and read or download the full report (PDF) here.

The press release notes:
The report evaluates the progress made by a select number of countries in the region (six) towards fulfilling their commitments under the International Conference for Population and Development (1994)Programme of Action.  The six countries are: Egypt, Kuwait, Yemen, Palestine, Turkey and Tunisia. The report relies on data from different United Nations bodies and the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) for the countries researched. The report also relies on a wide range of qualitative studies and human rights reports to support the quantitative statistics and data, as well as several interviews with activists and NGOs in the six countries mentioned.

Using several indicators to measure this progress, the report is divided into three main sections: the first covers the status of women’s rights in the examined countries as well as the health expenditure. The second part uses reproductive health indicators to measure the status of maternal care, abortion, fertility and family planning and reproductive cancers. The third part examines the states’ protection of sexual rights by monitoring sexuality education, sexually transmitted infections, HIV, early marriage, human trafficking and gender based violence in the six countries.

Launched on the occasion of the 20 year review of the Programme of Action, the reports concludes with policy recommendations for countries in the region on reproductive and sexual rights. The report highlights the importance of the commitment of the countries to ensuring and guaranteeing for its citizens and residents access to affordable and of good quality comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services. It also recommends to the countries that they review laws that limit the access to the above services for groups who need them, including women and youth.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Egypt's New Prime Minister is Very Old Establishment Indeed

Ibrahim Mehleb has been named as Egypt's new Prime Minister.

Egypt's new Prime Minister-Designate is not a new face. He was Housing Minister in the outgoing Cabinet, but he has been a senior figure in the Mubarak-era establishment. In the eyes of many of the young revolutionaries he will probably been seen as a classic member of the fallul, the "remnants," of the old regime. An engineer by training, he was a member of the Policies Committee of the now-disbanded (except for all the still-influential members) National Democratic Party; he served on the Shura Council (the Upper House) under Mubarak. But perhaps more important, he spent 11 years as Chairman of the Board of The Arab Contractors (Osman Ahmed Osman & Co.).

If that means little to you, I'm guessing you've never set foot in Egypt. The Arab Contractors is not just the biggest construction company in Egypt, but one of the largest in the Arab World. It has had a hand in almost every construction project in Egypt from the Aswan High Dam under Nasser to the new version of the Library of Alexandria. It was founded by Osman Ahmed Osman. Though the Osman family lost control of the company to the government in 2001, Osman, who died in 1999, had built it up through one of the classic examples of what has been called crony capitalism, benefiting from friends in high places. Already influential under Nasser, he was a personal friend of Anwar Sadat and welcomed Sadat's infitah or economic opening; the alliance was further cemented when Osman's son married Sadat's daughter. Throughout the Mubarak era, the company enjoyed a role in almost every major construction project. The company owns a soccer team, The Arab Contractors (their home is Osman Ahmed Osman Stadium).

It was this company that Mehleb served as its Chairman of the Board for 11 years. Definitely not a new face.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Manuscript Treasures of Deir al-Suryan in the Wadi Natrun

We have talked before about the ancient Coptic monasteries of the Wadi Natrun. where the ancient Desert Fathers created monasticism beginning as early as the 3rd century AD.

On this first day of Coptic Great Fast (Lent), I thought it might be appropriate to link to this recent piece on the manuscript library and preservation efforts at one of the surviving monasteries of the Wadi Natrun, the Deir al-Suryan: "Egypt's Mysterious Monastery Hides Ancient Secrets."

The title over-promises but the story itself is worthwhile.

Guest Post: Prince Charles' Sword Dance and the Early History of UK-Saudi Relations

We don't do many guest posts here, as most of the people I'd like to see post are too busy, and most who want to volunteer have agendas. I'm making an exception here because I thought this guest contribution by Paul Mutter was in keeping with my own penchant for using current events as a hook on which to hang historical narratives. And because I never posted about Prince Charles' sword dance last week, his little discourse serves as a commentary. Opinions expressed are his own, not mine or The Middle East Journal's.Michael Dunn 

Sword Dance

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at NYU. He has written for The Arabist, Souciant, PBS Tehran Bureau, Mondoweiss, and FPIF. He is doing his MA thesis on the GGC's responses to the Arab Spring.

It may seem ironic to see Prince Charles at a Wahhabi ceremony, seeing as how the Hashemites were originally the British favorites in the region. But the story of Sharif Hussein undone by the Ikhwan (Brethren) raiders of Ibn Saud is not simply one of Britain trading one native ruler for another when fortunes changed. British mistrust of the Hashemites (T. E. Lawrence's support for them notwithstanding) and wartime aid to the Saudis made their eventually triumph possible. Only after this did the discovery of oil seal the deal between the two powers.

Both Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud and Sharif Hussein bin Ali were promised protectorate status and military assistance in exchange for fighting against the Ottoman Empire - for the Sauds, it took little inducement to do so because their greatest rivals in the Nejd, the Rasheeds, were in the Ottoman camp. Sharif, as is well known, sought to establish a new Arab country ranging across the region and taking in the Hejaz holy places his family had claim to (eventually declaring himself caliph in 1924 following Mehmed VI’s deposal by the new Turkish state).

Of course, problems arose from the fact that Ibn Saud was not going to simply satisfied with controlling the Nejd while the Hashemites received the Hejaz. The Eastern Province, at the time usually called "Bahrain" since that island was the liveliest and oldest locale in the area, was of minor consequence since its strategic oil reserves had not been gauged yet – exploration in that region would only begin in earnest in the 1920s. The real prize was the Hejaz.

Britain thought it could manage the rival Arab potentates and play them off of each other. Ibn Saud, though, generally got the better of a disinterested London and a much more supportive Raj. He skillfully exploited his 1915 agreement with the British envoy Percy Cox to let alone the Trucial States and Mesopotamia - which fell under the Raj's purview - to go after the hated Rasheeds and strengthen his position in the Hejaz among the Hashemites' rivals. As he won victories against his hereditary foes and the Ottomans, supported by British arms and funding, he was then able to win new treaty agreements that legitimized his gains.

His military successes might have all been for naught, though, had the British not had reservations about the Hashemites that tempered T. E. Lawrence's boosterism of the Sharif. The Saudi triumphs were acceptable moves in a game of playing one Arab clan against another.

Into the postwar era, some members of the British establishment expressed a preference for the Hashemites over the less cough House of Saud. An account of the Arab Legion written in the 1970s by a former British officer describes the Battle of Ziza, where a 5,000-strong Ikhwan raiding force into Transjordan was defeated by the RAF, as a success against those "[who] were determined to convert the people of Transjordan by the sword".

This battle, decided in 1924 by a handful of armored cars and biplanes, would presage an even more important event a few years later involving the Brethren and British arms.

In the meantime, during WWI, Hashemites were never fully accepted by the British establishment. Officials in India were set against the Sharif, disliking their lack of control over him and fearing his grand plans for the Arab world. They went with Ibn Saud in this partisan contest, favorably citing his claims that the Nejd would never kneel before Hussein, and accepting his assurances he had no designs on Mesopotamia or the Trucial States. Though other Arab leaders would decry his treaties with the British, Ibn Saud knew his position depended on honoring them – which caused no small amount of tensions among more ambitious Brethren leaders.

The two rival potentates traded barbs over their relatively piety and influence: Ibn Saud touted his Wahhabism, Hussein his dynastic claim to Mecca. But neither could sincerely accuse the other of “collaborating” with a colonial power: both did. The Hashemite record is better known, so linked to the exploits of T. E. Lawrence in popular memory, but the historian Scott Anderson notes that Ibn Saud was no different: "British India’s man in Arabia" is how he describes the future pater patriae. Saudi engagement with the Raj had begun as early as the 1820s, after the Ottomans destroyed the First Saudi State. The greatly weakened House - its patriarch was publicly executed in Istanbul in 1818 - sought British support in its intertribal conflicts thereafter. The Saudi royal family even took refugee in British Kuwait in the 1890s after a failed assault against the Rasheeds.

Perhaps British India also thought Ibn Saud's puritanism could never glue a people together like Hussein's credentials could, and whomever Wahhabism did glue together would be of no consequence in the Imperial order. Just another beduin to be managed. Perhaps that would have been true, had WWI not marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire, nor had oil been found in the Middle East in 1902.

In any event, the Saudis proved colonial bureaucrats’ assessments wrong.

And Hussein was mistaken in assuming that a pan-Arab identity of his invention could smooth over the tribal, linguistic, and sectarian differences among the peoples he wished to incorporate into a kingdom. Hussein's son, Faisal I of Greater Syria, didn't last a year (1920) in Damascus, and Mecca was lost by 1924. Faisal brother’s Abdullah had to settle for the Transjordan after being dissuaded from marching on Damascus – ironically, it is this branch of the family, seen as the weakest, that has survived the longest in power despite threats within and without since the end of WWI.

But even in 1918, such events – the Iraqi and Syrian uprisings, the coming of ARAMCO, the Adwan Rebellion against British rule in Transjordan – were years off. The Eastern Province was not the energy larder of any power, and the UK was gaining control over half of the modern Middle East. What mattered was wartime expediency and managing new subject peoples. London and Cairo, influenced by T. E. Lawrence's reports, tended to favor the Hashemites over the House of Saud. The Raj's naysaying was not completely silenced, however, and British India more or less had its way in the end, since the UK did not come to the Hashemites' aid in the 1920s when the Ikhwan made their final push on the Hejaz.

Given the bias of the Raj, which was responsible for the Gulf region, small wonder that the British quickly reconciled themselves to the new Saudi reality after Battle of Jeddah (1925), when the Hashemites lost Jeddah and their abortive caliphate. Further British support was contingent on an end to Ikhwan raids into British territories, like the 1924 expedition halted at Ziza.

The Ikhwan eventually turned on their King because he had acceded to British demands to cease raiding into Transjordan and Kuwait in 1927 – whose borders the Ikhwan violated several times in the late 1920s.

Thanks to superior strategy and British-supplied equipment, though, Ibn Saud survived his levies’ rebellion.

In 1929, Ibn Saud's machine guns consignment and loyal Brethren factions smashed the massed cavalry of the rest. The "Ikhwan Revolt" soon ended in 1930 when its remaining leaders were interned in British Kuwait before being dispatched to Riyadh (and prison). Saudi Arabia began forming an army under a more bureaucratic control system to replace the decimated and resentful tribal levies with more loyal Brethren – who eventually became the Saudi National Guard that the present king, Abdullah, long commanded. British, and later  after WWII, American, assistance, helped build the Guard up.

What is ironic, given the role British armaments played in the Saudi unification wars, is that Saudi contracts are today helping keep British arms manufacturers afloat. According to Robert Lacey, since the 1980s, the Al-Yamamah arms deal (which in the end could be worth over US$80 billion, not including kickbacks) has stood between the life and death of British heavy industry.

Prince Charles may as well be performing that sword dance in tribute to his hosts' largesse to BAE. One wonders if such gestures were offered up to the Raj by the old king and his sons in 1932 when the battles finally ended and the modern Saudi state officially began.

Coptic Lent Begins Today

Egypt's Coptic Church observes a Lenten Fast before Easter of eight weeks or 55 days, two weeks longer than the Lenten fasts in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches (six weeks; 40 days). A normal 40 day fast is preceded by a week of preparation and followed by Holy Week, creating the longer fast. The Coptic Great Fast  for this year began today. (The longer Lent is also observed by the Ethiopian and Eritrean Churches, both originally daughter churches of Alexandria,)

For Coptic readers, may I wish you a rewarding Great Fast.

Egyptian Cabinet Resigns.

Egyptian Interim Minister Hazem El-Beblawi  has announced the resignation of his government. The timing seems to have surprised people, since a new government would have been formed anyway after the April Presidential elections. So why now?  This Reuters piece suggests a possible answer:since Field Marshal al-Sisi will have to resign the Defense Ministry and the Army in order to run for President anyway, he may have wanted to avoid being seen as acting unilaterally; instead the entire Cabinet resigns.

I'm not sure  I completely see the logic in that,  but I assume this does indeed relate to the Presidential timetable.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Bouteflika Keeps Going, and Going, nd Going, and Will Run Again Says PM

Algeria's Prime Minister Sallal has announced that President Bouteflika will run again,for a fourth term in April despite his stroke last year.
Bouteflika in 1964

So it looks like he's really going to do it, one of the last figures from the independence era still clinging to power, along with some senior generals. (But they haven't had debilitating strokes.)

Not everyone in Algeria seems to agree (Hat Tip to Bill Lawrence for the link):

Friday, February 21, 2014

A Language Note: From the Midan to the Maidan

Some reporters who covered both events noted similarities between the protests in 2011 and after in Cairo's Tahrir Square, and the recent ones in Kiev's (or to be more Ukrainian nationalist about it, Kyiv's) Independence Square.

But there's a linguistic resemblance as well. Tahrir Square is, of course, Midan al-Tahrir (ميدان التحرير‎). (See my "Brief Biography of Tahrir Square," posted when Mubarak resigned). And Kiev's Independence Square is Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Майдан Незалежності), popularly called just "the Maidan." And the word has become shorthand for the protesters in the Maidan. (And "Euromaidan" has also been coined.)

Maydan is a word found from North Africa to India and on up into Central Asia. The origin, I think, is Persian, though some think it has an Arabic root, myd; at least it entered Arabic early and also Ottoman Turkish; the Ottomans spread it into the later Russian Empire and the Iranians into India and Central Asia.

My sense is that the original meaning was a large open space such as a military parade ground; it certainly meant that in Mamluk Egypt, but it came to mean any large outdoor open space, often replacing older words for square, for example. So the Midan and the Maidan are linked by more than contemporary protests.

Signs of the Apocalypse, or What?

I'll let you make up your own jokes, but I'm not sure this advances peace or democratic change in the Middle East:

Justin Bieber will play in Cairo in April.

And Lady Gaga will be in Tel Aviv in September.

Update: on the other hand, the Rolling Stones, still drawing crowds though they're older than I am, recently played in Abu Dhabi.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Busy Day

Between Journal work today and family stuff tonight, this will be a rare day with no blog posts (except this one). But check back tomorrow as I have a few things in progress.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Is Muhammad bin Nayef Replacing Bandar bin Sultan on the Saudi Syria Account?

Earlier today The Wall Street Journal reported that Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who for decades was Ambassador to the US, had been "replaced" as the Saudi responsible for Syria policy due to failures of Saudi policy in supporting the moderate Syrian rebels. Rumors about Bandar being either ill or on the way out due to the failures of his Syria policy and worsening relations with the US have been in the air for weeks, however. [Update: Let me clarify that the WSJ piece didn't explicitly say that he'd been replaced as head of intelligence; I simply read it that way at first and have changed my text to reflect the fact that the replacement only involves the Syria issue.]
This Washington Post piece by David Ignatius, known for his links in US intelligence circles, says that Western and Middle Eastern "spymasters" met to discuss Syria strategy and that Muhammad bin Nayef has taken over the Syria responsibility from Bandar, "who has been suffering from a back ailment and whose leadership of the program was seen as uneven."

One of the issues for the Saudis  is the growing power of Jihadi groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Muhammad bin Nayef, when he was Deputy Interior Minister under his late father, was well-known as the main anti-terrorism chief against al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), presumably even more so after an AQAP figure tried to kill him in 2009 by detonating a bomb inserted in his (the suicide bomber's) rectum. Muhammad received wounds but survived.

Bandar may well be on the way out at General Intelligence, but it would make little sense for Muhammad bin Nayef (who's on the fast track, clearly) to take a demotion. Giving him just the Syria dossier makes a lot more sense.

An Interesting Open Source Multi-Media Site on the Middle East from Oxford

A new site from Oxford, Manar al-Athar, offers free photos and other media relating to the Middle East. Here's how they explain it:
The Manar al-Athar website, based at the University of Oxford, aims to provide high resolution, searchable images for teaching, research, and publication. These images of archaeological sites, with buildings and art, will cover the areas of the former Roman empire which later came under Islamic rule, such as Syro-Palestine/the Levant, Arabia, Egypt, North Africa and Spain. The chronological range is from Alexander the Great (i.e., from about 300 BC) through, the Islamic period to the present. It is the first website of its kind providing such material labelled jointly in both Arabic and English. We will also be publishing related material, both online and on paper, in English and Arabic.

Humanitarian Needs of Syrian Children

I find it hard to write about Syria; it's so depressing and there are no easy solutions. But the humanitarian issues are real, immediate, and addressable. As you may know, MEI recently sponsored a conference on just this subject.

Here's a moving appeal from Karen Betts, Foreign Policy Counsellor at the British Embassy in Washington on the Embassy's "Global Conversations" Blog," Syrian Children Need Our Help."

It's worth a read.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Salam Finally Forms Lebanon's New Cabinet

One thing that happened over the holiday weekend that I probably should mention: after more than ten months since he was designated as Lebanon's Prime Minister, Tammam Salam finally formed a Cabinet.

As has been the case since the 2008 Doha Accord, the 24-person Cabinet (23 men, one woman) is divided three ways, with eight members from the conservative March 14 bloc, eight from the March 8 bloc (which includes Hizbullah), and eight "centrists" selected by the President, the Prime Minister, and Walid Jumblatt. This formula, which makes it difficult to reach decisions since any of the three blocs can prevent a quorum, is one reason Lebanon can go 10 months without a Cabinet: the system has deadlock and paralysis built in, so the absence of a Cabinet makes things only slightly worse; but the growing wave of bombings and the burden of refugees flowing in from Syria has exacerbated the situation in recent months.

Qifa Nabki (Elias Muhanna) offers a useful analysis of his own reading of the new Cabinet, including speculation about March 8 and March 14 "moles" in the centrist bloc.He also provides this useful table of who's who, which I hope he won't mind me posting here:


Meanwhile, Karl Sharro (Karl ReMarks) offers a tongue-in-cheek guide to making a Lebanese government, which actually explains it fairly well. You should read it all.

Given the long wait for the new government, I am also reminded of this Sharro cartoon from last summer, "The Phoenicians invent Government":

The Marshall Islands' Non-Explanation of That Jamil El-Sayed UNESCO Nomination

Remember last week's weird (just really weird) story about how the tiny Marshall Islands had nominated the former Lebanese security chief (and Hariri assassination suspect) Jamil El-Sayed to be their (its?) Ambassador to UNESCO in Paris, and then withdrew the nomination?

It was strange to begin with. (And for what may be the first time since World War II, the Marshall Islands made global news twice in recent weeks, as the Mexican castaway who supposedly survived for nearly a year also washed up on one of their atolls.)

Since you probably don't regularly read or follow the weekly newspaper The Marshall Islands Journal, I thought I'd share their not entirely illuminating background piece:
As officials in Majuro [the Marshallese capital], learned Wednesday that the nomination of al-Sayyed had been officially transmitted to UNESCO — apparently last December — they moved quickly to cancel it. Acting President Tony deBrum communicated with President Loeak and Foreign Minister Phillip Muller while they were enroute to Japan, and a letter rescinding the nomination of al-Sayyed was prepared and signed by Muller who had signed the original letter nominating al-Sayyed in December. RMI [Republic of the Marshall Islands] officials said they were unable to locate the original nomination letter that Muller signed in December. Muller signed another letter Wednesday to UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova cancelling the nomination for al-Sayyed effective immediately. Acting President deBrum told the Journal Wednesday that initial contact about the possible nomination of al-Sayyed was made to RMI leaders during a visit to Palau at the end of September, and then a follow up visit by a representative of al-Sayyed in December, which resulted in the nomination letter being signed. 
So, "they were unable to locate the original nomination letter?" The original approach came via Palau, another Pacific microstate and ex-US Trust Territory?  There was "a follow up visit by a representative of al-Sayyed in December, which resulted in the nomination letter being signed."

And that's all it takes to  nominated an Ambassador to UNESCO for a country Jamil El-Sayed may never have visited?

Why do I feel part of this story is still missing?

A Graphic Illustration of Why There is So Much Sexual Content on the Internet

February hasn't been a great blogging month. I lost a couple of days to a bug and much of the country was iced, snowed, or otherwise weathered out of the picture for a while. On the weekend I did a routine check of blog  traffic and found it was low on this site and others. I've talked about the situations in Egypt and Syria, a fair amount of cultural stuff, the Bouteflika-Mediene power struggle in Algeria, and other serious matter, though little has been exciting. Traffic on the blog has been a few hundred visits a day, the extremely low end of normal.

Then we learned that Lebanese Olympic skier Jackie Chamoun had once taken her top off for a ski calendar photoshoot. Though the photos I posted here were in the Sports Illustrated  Swimsuit issue level of peek-a-boo suggestiveness at best, the whole Chamoun issue went viral due to a "making of" video which she says was not to be made public,  I had one critical comment on the post, criticizing me for "bashing" Ms. Chamoun while I thought I was defending her. That post went up late on the night of February 10. The next day I got 1,242 visits and 1,504 pageviews; the following day 942 visits and 1,093 pageviews. Not my all-time high or even close, but pretty impressive for February. I later had a follow-up post on the surge of support for her. (And Sports Minister Faisal Karami, who called for an investigation, is not in the newly-named Cabinet.)

The graph above is Google Analytics'  trace of the first two weeks of February's blog traffic, showing the Chamoun surge. [Update: off blog I've had comments about the shape of the graph. Take a cold shower and get a girlfriend.]

 Lebanese traffic also increased, Lebanon rising to number 7 in my source countries. It may have risen that high in the past, but not for quite a while. The English-speaking countries (US, UK, Canada and Australia: where are you, New Zealanders?) plus Egypt, Israel, the UAE, Germany, and lately Turkey (which used to block all Blogger sites) usually dominate, but this propelled Lebanon up the ranks.

In the top 10 Google search words included all of the following:
Jackie Chamoun (the number one search)
Jackie Chamoun topless
Jacky Chamoun
Jacky Chamoun topless
Jackie Chamoun nudity
Five in the top ten; three in the top four. Most do not appear to relate to her Olympic ski performance; she didn't actually ski till the weekend. None said "Jackie Chamoun Olympic ski results."

Now, don't read this as meaning that my readers are basically all lecherous males looking for not-very-revealing pictures; it's more a function of lecherous males looking for not-very-revealing pictures who never heard of this blog before finding it through Google.

On the other hand, among my highest-ranking posts for all time are those dealing with Aliaa Elmahdy, though again her actual nudity never appeared on the blog. So talking about nudity works.

We all know sex sells. Apparently naked, or topless, Arab women draw traffic. (Who'd have thunk it?) In my original post I said that the still pics were mild and only the video showed much, and commented:
I still think it's rather mild: there are a few shots, at some distance, where you seem to see her breasts fully, but unless you're really good at stop-motion screen shots, if this is the only way you can find nudity (with nipples: see above) on the Internet, you're doing it wrong. I find it innocent enough to post here.
I underestimated the lechery of the Internet: of course there are now tons of screencaps showing blurry shots of Ms. Chamoun's breasts. You won't find them here, as I'm respecting her Facebook request not to circulate them further, and if blurred distant toplessness is the best you can do you don't understand the Internet; but I fear she's paying the price of being photographed in revealing ways, even if not for publication. Once a photo or a video is on the Internet, it will never entirely disappear. I still don't think she did anything wrong: actresses in Arab films and music videos sometimes appear seemingly topless, though only their back is shown; I assume the cameramen and director saw more. (And a few have survived "sex tape" scandals, though without the career boost that seems to create in the West). Ms. Chamoun did not think the "making of" video would ever appear, and the calendar, if coy, was unrevealing. The biggest "boobs" in this story are her critics.

Despite the huge surge last week, I am not taking from it the lesson that this should be a sex blog, or start running a Page Three Girl if we had pages.The Middle East Institute tolerates my rather broad "social and cultural" mission definition, but I'm not going to push it. (There aren't enough topless Arab women anyway.) But if you wonder why there's so much sexual content on the Internet, I think the graph above is revealing. It draws traffic.

Monday, February 17, 2014

President's Day Holiday

Today is the President's Day holiday in the US. It used to be Washington's Birthday, but now we throw in all the Presidents. So in honor of the leadership qualities of Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and Rutherford B. Hayes, I won't be blogging today.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Libya: What if they Gave a Coup and Nobody Came?

There are sincere people who disagree about whether or not what happened in Egypt July 3 was a coup or not, but I think most people would agree that the mouse-that-roared "coup" in Libya today was definitely not a coup.

Major General Khalifa Haftar (also Hifter), a former general under Qadhafi who may or may not have been influential in his overthrow and may or may not be retired, posted a video online in which he "announced" that "The national command of the Libyan Army is declaring a movement for a new road map." (These days, it's always a road map.) He announced the suspension of Parliament.

Then the Prime Minister called it "ridiculous," the Army denied it and stayed in its barracks, and Parliament kept on functioning. The New York Times account here;  and the Reuters version here.

Now no one doubts tensions are high in Libya and people are a bit jittery, but you see, General, as influential as YouTube is, you still can't overthrow a government with a YouTube video. You still need to seize the radio and TV stations and maybe the airport, and for that a few actual troops and maybe some tanks in the street are pretty much necessary.

This Al-Arabiya shot is making the media rounds; "Haftar announces an inqilab"; in Arabic, inqilab means "coup," but its literal meaning is "turning over":

Nine Years Today Since the Hariri Assassination

When I noted yesterday the very weird story about the Marshall Islands and Jamil El-Sayed, I failed to realize the irony of the timing: today marks the ninth anniversary of the assassination of Rafiq Hariri,  a crime for which Jamil El-Sayed was imprisoned for four years, but never prosecuted.

Sisi Returns Triumphant from Russian Visit, Putin Endorsement

I guess if you are around long enough some things do come full circle. On a July day in 1972 I sat on  balcony by the Nile and watched wave after wave of big Antonov transports heading eastward over the city of Cairo. I wondered if troops were being moved towards the Canal, then the front line with Israel. The next day I learned otherwise: Anwar Sadat had expelled the Soviet military "advisers" (some of whom were actually pilots and such) from Egypt.

Field Marshal al-Sisi has now returned triumphant from Moscow, having concluded a $2 billion arms deal with Russia, a deal reportedly paid with Gulf funding, and, perhaps more importantly, won an apparent endorsement by Vladimir Putin himself for his likely run for the Egyptian Presidency. (Sisi was there in his capacity as Defense Minister, along with Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, and they were technically returning the visit of the Russian Foreign and Defense Ministers to Cairo last year. But the trip, which the Russians reportedly wanted to delay until after the Olympics but Sisi refused, is clearly being played in the Egyptian media as Sisi's first big diplomatic triumph, ideally timed before Presidential elections in April. It allows him to distance himself from the long dependence on the US, echoes the theme of Sisi as a new Nasser, and the act that he wore a business suit rather than a uniform also drew attention.

Of course, Egypt hasn't broken with the US as a military supplier; it's diversifying. Sisi is not Nasser, Putin's Russia is not the Cold War Soviet Union, and it's not the 1950s and 1960s any more, but the trip does skillfully evoke memories of those days, when Khrushchev stood next to Nasser at the Aswan High Dam. Since Sisi will need to announce his Presidential intentions soon, the high-profile trip to Moscow represents a well-timed move.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Marshall Islands Withdraw Nomination of Ex-Lebanese Spymaster Jamil El-Sayed as their Ambassador to UNESCO. Wait, WHAT?

Remember Jamil El-Sayed? He was once the pro-Syrian Lebanese General in charge of the powerful Sureté Général. Then, after the Hariri assassination, he was arrested during the Mehlis investigation and held for four years, until 2009. He was released for lack of evidence to prosecute but reportedly remains of interest to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).

I lost track of him after 2009 but then comes this AFP story yesterday:
The Marshall Islands have withdrawn their nomination of a former Lebanese army general as their ambassador to UNESCO, a well-placed diplomatic source told AFP on Wednesday.

The general, Jamil El Sayed, spent four years in prison on suspicion of involvement in the 2005 murder of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri. He denies any involvement and claims to have been subjected to arbitrary detention.

The Marshall Islands' move to nominate him to UNESCO, the UN's cultural arm, was revealed by French daily Le Figaro, which noted that acquiring diplomatic immunity could enable El Sayed to avoid potential prosecution by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, an international UN-backed criminal tribunal looking into Hariri's murder.
The Marshall Islands is a Pacific islands microstate and former US Trust Territory; here's the original Le Figaro story from a few days ago:
Selon nos informations, les minuscules îles Marshall, peuplées de 60.000 âmes dans le nord de l'océan Pacifique, ont bien notifié à l'Unesco la candidature du général al-Sayed pour les représenter. «Cela créé un vif émoi au sein de l'Organisation, constate un diplomate arabe. L'Unesco n'a pas envie de voir débarquer un homme au passé sulfureux.» Sollicitée, l'Unesco n'a pas souhaité répondre à nos questions.
According to Le Figaro, the French government was also far from  eager to see him turn up in Paris under diplomatic immunity. Now the nomination has been withdrawn.

Just speculating: do you think the Marshall Islands were just so impressed with the former Lebanese spy chief's profound contributions in the educational, scientific, and cultural fields, UNESCO's brief, or did he have a longtime close relationship with these Micronesian atolls?

Or, horrors, do you think money could have been somehow involved?

After Sports Minister's Remarks, Lebanese Social Media Spring to Defense of Jackie Chamoun

The age of social media makes it harder for government officials to escape ridicule when they act stupidly. I already noted a couple of days ago that the fuss over pictures of Lebanese Olympic skier Jackie Chamoun was being blown out of proportion in the Lebanese press; then Caretaker Youth and Sports Minister Faisal Karami chimed in, saying the photos would damage Lebanon's international image and saying he had telephoned the International Olympic Committee to ask for an investigation.

Comments on social media were quick to note that there have been a number of deadly car bombings lately in Lebanon as well as a couple of recent wife murders that went unpunished, and that maybe some cheesecake pictures of an attractive athlete weren't really the biggest threat to the country's reputation. And that "Caretaker" in Karami's title stems from the fact that Lebanon has gone without a government for ten months now; but then, as Qifa Nabki noted recently, it's also been the case for two and a half out of the last four years.
As for Chamoun herself, she apologized on her Facebook page, noting that the photos were old, that the actual calendar photos were not that revealing, and that the video of the "making of" the calendar was not supposed to be made public.  She said:
 I just want to make it clear to everyone who commented, shared the photos that appeared on the net in Lebanon yesterday. Yes I did photos for an Austrian ski calendar with other professional athletes 3 years ago. The photos of the photoshoot are not like the actual images that are now circulating on the net. The video and photos that you are now seeing are part of the making off, the preparation, it wasn’t supposed to go public. Anyways, I want to apologize to all of you, I know that Lebanon is a conservative country and this is not the image that reflects our culture. I fully understand if you want to criticise this.
Now that I’m at the Olympic Games, these photos that I never saw before are being shared. It is sad. All I can ask to each of you who saw this, is to stop spreading it, it will really help me focusing on what is really important now: my trainings and race.
In fact, not only did the comments on her post appear to be mostly favorable,  but Lebanese took to social media with a #StripforJackie campaign, posting pictures of themselves discreetly covered by strategically placed protest signs; bloggers also sprang to her defense, and Lebanon Now editorialized with these words and photo, in an editorial entitled "Boobs over Bullets; Gold over Graft":
Jackie Chamoun, one of two alpine skiers representing Lebanon at the Sochi Olympics, has come under fire for exposing herself (or part of herself) in a photo shoot a few years ago. In turn, her critics have come under fire for targeting “boobs instead of bombs.” Meanwhile, the Lebanese Minister of Youth and Sports has called upon Lebanese Olympic officials to investigate matters to uphold Lebanon’s reputation. (Incidentally, as many others have pointed out, that reputation would be a lot nicer without the cartels, bombings, killings, kidnappings, gun running, drug smuggling, corruption, poor roads, lack of power, inconsistent water supply, and declining quality of hummus.)
Lebanon Now Website
Furthermore, some Lebanese commercial products also joined in the #StripforJackie protest on their websites and social media pages, including Almaza beer, posing without its label:

Roughly, "don't take my clothes off."

The whole "scandal" isn't a scandal and henceforth I think we should respect Ms. Chamoun's request and let her concentrate on the ski slopes. And I hope all the humor has put Mr. Karami's indignation in proper perspective.

Did the Focus on Tahrir Miss the Real Story?

As Washington digs out from the snowstorm, here's an interesting piece: "Did Reporters Covering the Arab Spring Miss the Real Story?" The author thinks so, that the focus on Tahrir Square missed the silent majority of Egyptians who were not there and who did not share the heady enthusiasm, but whose concerns are more in evidence now. It's worth your time.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

On the Damaged Dar al-Kutub Manuscript Collection

 We've dealt previously with the damage the January 24 Cairo bombing did to the Museum of Islamic Art across the street from the police headquarters that was the target; an article at Mada Masr goes into more detail on the damage to the other institution in the building, the rare manuscript collection of the Dar al-Kutub Bab al-Khalq (the old Dar al-Kutub). It also outlines the history of Egypt's National Library at that site,dating back to its days as the Khedivial Library.  Both the Museum and the Library are priceless storehouses of Islamic heritage.

Retired General Urges Bouteflika to Retire

The ongoing tug of war between President Bouteflika and the DRS Military Intelligence establishment continues. Hocine Benhadid, a senior retired general, has now publicly called on Bouteflika not to run for a fourth term, saying he should retire "with dignity and let Algeria catch its breath." 

Benhadid also denounced FLN Secretary General Amar Saidani's recent call for the resignation of the DRS head as "treason." From the AFP report:
But for Benhadid, the country's stability cannot be guaranteed by someone who was "sick" and the "hostage of his entourage."
He singled out for criticism Bouteflika's brother Said, the "main actor" in the presidential clan, as well as army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah, one of the ailing leader's key allies.
"The chief of staff has no credibility, and no one is fond of him," Benhadid said.
He accused Bouteflika's entourage of "playing with Algeria's destiny" in order to "save its skin, because corruption has reached dangerous levels."
Benhadid, who retired in 1996 during Algeria's decade-long civil war, said Bouteflika's clan was guilty of "treason" for calling on Mohamed "Tewfik" Mediene, the veteran chief of the DRS military intelligence agency, to quit over alleged security failings.
Saidani, the leader of Bouteflika's National Liberation Front and a key supporter of the president standing for re-election, made the call last week in unprecedented public criticism of the secretive general who many consider the hidden force in Algerian politics.
Bouteflika himself, in the wake of the recent fatal military aircraft crash, denounced any who criticize the Army, perhaps seeking to distance himself from Saidani's remarks.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Will Yemen's Federation Plan Work?

The conventional wisdom on the "Arab Spring" has long been that Tunisia is the one real success story; Yemen is too complicated, the former President is still influential, and the  country still faces a great many challenges.

But yesterday's announcement that the country will be transformed into a federation of six autonomous regions is a good sign. The former South Yemen has been restless since its failed attempt at secession in 1994; the Houthi uprising in the north is another reminder of the country's centrifugal tendencies.

The southerners are not entirely happy; four of the six regions are in the former North Yemen and only two in the former South Yemen, but Aden will be given a special role in the southern regions. It won't solve all of Yemen's problems, perhaps even the South's complaints, but like the Tunisian constitution it is a reminder that when diverse political parties and social groups consult together, it is possible to move forward.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Lebanon Sent Two Athletes to Sochi and There's Already a "Scandal" About One of Them

If you've been watching the Olympics in Sochi (and it's pretty hard to avoid), you already know that this is not the Middle East's thing, exactly. Despite the famous Jamaican bobsled team, the Saudis don't do the luge, skiing is scarce in Libya. and nobody including me has a clue about curling. Of the 88 countries participating at Sochi, only two are Arab: Lebanon and Morocco. Israel. Iran, and Turkey are there, as are Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. who are all in the neighborhood. Some Central Asian countries are there too.

By an odd coincidence last week my staff was poking around in the Middle East Institute's attic and found a 1946 book in Arabic on "Winter Sports in Lebanon," and this post relates to the Lebanese Olympic team.

Jackie with skies and not much else
Lebanon sent two athletes to compete at Sochi: skiers Alexandre Mohat and Jackie Chamoun, Another skier who is in the Olympic delegation from Lebanon, Chirine Njeim, and who competed in Vancouver in 2010 but isn't skiing this year, and Chamoun, are the center of the controversy. Apparently last year they posed for a calendar in Switzerland for photographer/Olympic skier Hubertus von Hohenlohe, a German prince who is representing Mexico in Sochi (I'm not making this up), and in the stills from the shoot, Chamoun appears topless. I say "appears" because, in most of the stills at least, her hands,arms, or ski are strategically placed. We aren't in Playboy territory here but in Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue world, with hands, hair, etc. keeping things, in US movie-rating terms, PG-13 rather than R.

A Lebanese media site, Al-Jadid Sport reported today what was already apparently old news: that Chamoun and Njeim had  posed for the calendar, calling it a scandal, and so on. Bloggers aren't as sure, and part of the issue is what "topless" means, since Western models at least often pose showing parts but not all of their "top" and aren't  considered to have done nudity. (In the US at least the distinction seems to be, frankly, whether you can see nipples. If not, it's seemingly OK for broadcast TV.) (Of course it makes no sense, but don't complain to me.)

How scandalous exactly is this "side-boob" shot?
Jackie is clearly enough topless in this picture but not frontally so: is that as objectionable? Oh, EEK! She's topless! Yes, but showing only what the American tabloids call "sideboob," a useful if inelegant term. It's unclear as to why Americans seem to be OK with seeing almost all the breast except for the nipple before they complain "she's naked" (over here, "pastie" means something quite different than it does in Cornwall: a small application pasted over the nipple), but that's how it is. Europeans don't seem to obsess as much on the nipple, but Americans do. Chamoun is within the acceptable range in the still photos..

Hizbullah (less tolerant than even puritanical Americans) is not going to like it back home, but her name indicates she's Christian, and Lebanon has a tradition of sexual edginess.

In fact, she has already discussed the photo shoot with NBC, which handles the official US Olympic coverage:
Hubertus mentioned that you posed for his Ski Instructors calendar. What was that like and did you get the chance to talk with him at all about his Olympic experiences?

Hubertus is a good friend of mine. He came to Lebanon for international competitions and I also saw him at the World Championships in Val d’Isere in 2009 and the Olympics in 2010. We stayed in contact and he was in Serbia when I was there racing. He is a really good friend and he is very passionate about what he does, whether it is sport or the Olympics or photography. It is nice to see people who are older and still want more and don’t want to stop because they love the sport so much.

So, Hubertus came to Lebanon because he did a video show about Beirut and he also did this calendar. Chirine and I were in the calendar. We met him on the slopes. Of course it was a strange feeling to be on the slopes of Lebanon and produce this calendar, but it was great to be with Hubertus and his crew. It was a great experience and a lot of fun.

When you say it was weird, what do you mean?

First because it was… I did photos before for a Lebanese magazine and advertisements but not these kind of photos. The other weird thing was that I knew everybody at the ski resort. I knew all the skiers who were passing. I could see other skiers. I could see the parents of other skiers. I could see my coaches, everyone. When you get there, you are like, ‘No, what am I doing? Maybe I shouldn’t do this.’ But then you go with it and have fun.

Was it a positive experience?

Uhh, yes.

Why the hesitation?

(laughs) It was positive for me. I don’t regret it at all. When I started my job, for example, people when they search for me on the web sometimes they can see these pictures directly so you think maybe it’s not the best thing, not the best image you can give someone of you. But, I don’t really care, though. I really enjoyed it and I don’t regret it. I like these photos. I have no problem with it.

Was it difficult to do in a country like Lebanon which is more conservative than a lot of other counties in the world?

Yes. If we were somewhere else in Lebanon, in a public place, maybe they would have shooted us. But we were on the slope in Faraya and it is an open space. The people who go there are people from Beirut who are open-minded, more international in their thinking, and also the jet-set of Lebanon so it wasn’t a problem there. It’s really open there, like in Europe. In other places we could have been in really big trouble.

What did your parents say?

My dad wasn’t happy with it at all (laughs). He didn’t want me to do it, but my mom was okay with it.
Fair enough, I'd say. Here, for the record, is her fellow Lebanese Olympian Cherine Njeim, also under-dressed for the weather:

Also, I feel, in the PG-13 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue range of objectionableness. 

To be fair to the critics, there is a "making of" video out there on YouTube which does appear to show more of Jackie than the stills do. I still think it's rather mild: there are a few shots, at some distance, where you seem to see her breasts fully, but unless you're really good at stop-motion screen shots, if this is the only way you can find nudity (with nipples: see above) on the Internet, you're doing it wrong. I find it innocent enough to post here.

I find this a teapot tempest. Like many attractive athletes before and since, Jackie and Cherine are teasing their fans. Hardly a "scandal."

Karl reMarks Summarizes the Arab Spring

A short, pre-emptive history of the Arab Spring
Karl Sharro ("Karl reMarks") offers us "A short, pre-emptive history of the Arab Spring."
A short, pre-emptive history of the Arab SpringKar

He explains:
As anyone who has ever read one knows, history books can be very tedious. They are also full of speculation and guesswork because they’re normally written many years after the fact. Having lived through the ‘Arab Spring’, or the Arab Spring as it is sometimes known, I decided to spare future generations the ordeal of figuring out what precisely happened between 2011 and 2017, which is when the Arab Spring, or the ‘Arab Spring’ officially ended. To that end, I wrote this short, pre-emptive history that will render all future speculation about the subject entirely useless and leave future generations with more time on their hands to figure out what the point of Stonehenge was.
 Read the whole thing.

Nostalgia to Start the Week: King Farouq Marries Queen Farida, 1938

I used to end the week with a nostalgia post; let's start this week with one: a newsreel of King Farouq's marriage to Safinaz Zulfiqar, renamed Queen Farida in 1938. (Farouq's father, King Fuad I, liked his own initial so much he gave all his children names beginning with "F"; Farouq not only did the same with his four children but even renamed his first wife. His second wife would keep her birth name of Nariman, however.) Farida bore Farouq three daughters; he divorced her in 1948 and married Nariman Sadek in 1951. She bore his son and heir, Ahmad Fuad, to whom Farouq abdicated at the time of the 1952 revolution. The infant Fuad II was technically the last King of Egypt until the monarchy was abolished in 1953.

The march music providing the soundtrack of this video is the Royalist National Anthem of the era, in use from 1936 until about 1960 (with changed words after 1952), and one of at least four, perhaps more, tunes that have served as Egypt's national anthem. This one has a bit of notoriety since the large number of British troops in Egypt during World War II heard it played at the end of cinema presentations and put their own words to it. words unflattering to Egyptians, to Farida and Farouq, and also grossly obscene, sexist, racist, imperialist, and offensive in other ways, not to mention carrying lèse-majesté to new heights. (Typical soldier stuff in other words.)  I won't mar the wedding festivities below by quoting them here (that's what Google is for: search for "The Ballad of King Farouk and Queen Farida," or similar titles). And don't say I didn't give you fair warning how many ways it's offensive. Perhaps a post for another time.

Embedded from the Misr al-An wa Zaman ("Egypt today and in the past") nostalgia Facebook site. Not sure if the link will work if you don't have a Facebook account, but let's give it a try.