A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, March 31, 2014

A Startling Video of What it Feels Like When a Syrian MiG-29 is Angry With You

Here, via an aviation website, is a rather startling Syrian rebel video of a Syrian Air Force MiG-29; as the rebels are filming the aircraft, it maneuvers  directly towards the camera, opens fire with its gun, and the video abruptly ends with confusion and an "Allahu Akbar." Not a comfortable place to find yourself. Though designed as an air superiority fighter, Syria has been using the Mig-29 in a ground attack role; the 30mm cannon on its left wing has a 100-round magazine; that's what's being fired at the camera here. A 30mm round is serious business.

The Arabic in the upper left reads "Islamic Front: Army of Islam."

Sisi on a Bicycle: At Least it Isn't a White Horse

Over the weekend, Egypt set its Presidential elections for May 26-27.

Meanwhile, when Field Marshal Sisi announced his intention to run, he noted that that broadcast was the last time we would see him in a military uniform, and indeed he's been photographed wearing a regular business suit a few times. But then over the weekend Al-Masry al-Youm posted this (link text is in Arabic)
In a track suit. Riding a bicycle. Egyptian social media are having fun with it, but I guess we're in for a populist, man-of the-people sort of campaign. It's better than a man on a white horse.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Richard N. Frye, 1920-2014: Dean of American Iranianists

Richard Nelson Frye,  Aga Khan Professor of Iranian Studies Emeritus at Harvard and the virtual founder of Iranian and Central Asian Studies in the United States, has passed away at the age of 94.

Frye wrote widely on Iranian history and culture, from Ancient Iran to the present but with a special interest in the earlier periods; he also trained generations of scholars at Harvard between 1948 and 1990.

His website is here and his Wikipedia entry here.

Band of Brothers: A Look at Egypt's New High Command

Field Marshal al-Sisi may be a civilian now, but the new high command of the Egyptian Armed Forces are men close to him, of his generation, and chosen by him; since replacing Field Marshal al-Tantawi in 2012, which also swept away a whole generation of officers (some 70 senior officers were retired), Sisi had made a couple of reshuffles in the high command, the latest in recent weeks.

The new Defense Minister and Chief of Staff are men close to Sisi and somewhat in his image (the new Chief of Staff's daughter is married to Sisi's son). and the Chief of General Intelligence chosen right after the coup is a former patron of Sisi's. We are seeing the emergence of a cohesive military/intelligence leadership of the sort Anwar Sadat and Husni Mubarsk always discouraged as a potential threat to their own power.

Before I start my own take on this, let me also strongly recommend this piece by Robert Springborg on the BBC website, which offers his reading of Sisi and his career as well as a good introduction to the power and traditions of the Egyptian Armed Forces. Bob, who is normally based at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey but is apparently a Visiting Professor at King's College, London, is perhaps the leading academic expert on the Egyptian Army and a friend for decades, and it's an excellent piece, though it discusses Sisi rather than the newest appointments.

Much of what follows is from the military c.v.'s of the two new top brass; you'll  find those (in Arabic) at the Egyptian Ministry of Defense website, though it doesn't appear to be possible to link directly to their pages; you need to use the drop-down menus. I should also note that the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) has prepared a useful photo chart of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, along with some analysis by Gilad Wenig, though the Springborg piece is much fuller. The poster is handy, though.

When Sisi resigned, the Armed Forces Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Sidqi Subhi (often seen as Sedky Sobhy) was immediately promoted to full General (fariq awwal, increasingly translated in Egyptian media as Colonel-General,  though it is the equivalent of an Americn four-star); it is the traditional rank held by Defense Ministers who have not been made Field Marshals. The Defense Minister is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and presides over the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), unless the President attends, and the new Constitution greatly enhances the power and independence of the Defense Minister. (This was first done in the Morsi-era Constitution to weaken the authority of the civilian President, but retained in the new version). Sisi would naturally need an ally and supporter in the post to avoid conflict with the Army.

Sidqi Subhi with his new rank (MoD)
He appears to have it. Subhi has served as Sisi's Chief of Staff since August 2012 when Morsi, with the concurrence of middle-ranking generals, retired Field Marshal Tantawi and his Chief of Staff, Sami Enan, as well as every officer senior to Sisi and Subhi. Like Sisi, he comes from the Infantry, as did Tantawi and much of the senior command. He is a year younger than Sisi, was a year behind him at the Military Academy, and apparently is trusted by Sisi. Before becoming Chief of Staff in 2014 he served as Commander of the Third Field Army, based in Suez and responsible for the southern part of the Suez Canal and Sinai. He has taken a keen interest in the security issue in Sinai.

Mahmud Hegazy (MoD)
Replacing Subhi as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces (roughly equivalent to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the US, but with more direct command authority over the services) is Mahmud Hegazy, newly promoted to Lieutenant General (fariq).

Bob Springborg's article above notes that the Infantry arm have tended to dominate the Army since Naguib's and Nasser's day (both Infantry). (Mubarak was from the Air Force, but chosen Vice President as the Air Force could pose little threat to Sadat.) There are exceptions, though: Sadat actually served in the Signal Corps, though generally posted with infantry units (where he first met Nasser); his background in signals is why he was chosen to read the radio announcement of the 1952 coup. And Field Marshal Muhammad ‘Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazala, Defense Minister briefly under Sadat and then Mubarak through most of the 1980s, until Mubarak saw him as a rival and threat and fired him, came from the Artillery.

I raise this because Hegazy comes from the Armored corps, not the Infantry. But he has quite a lot in common with Sisi despite their different branches. Like Sisi, his previous job was as Director of Military Intelligence. More to the point, in 2010 Hegazy's daughter married Sisi's son; in fact a scan of their wedding invitation has already appeared on Twitter:
There are many other links among the three men. They are close in age (Hegazy born 1953, Sisi 1954, and Subhi 1955), close together at the Military Academy (Hegazy class of 1974; Subhi 1976; Sisi 1977). and all were commissioned too late to serve in the 1973 War.

All three have taken professional military training in the United States as well as in Egypt: both Sisi and Subhi studied at the USِ  Army War College in Carlisle, PA; both also took Basic Infantry Courses in the US and Subhi other infantry courses, while Sisi also studied at the British Joint Command and Staff College.  And Hegazy took at least one Armored Course in the US.

In addition to these three, Egyptian General Intelligence Service Director Muhammad Farid al-Tuhami, is a bit older than the others (born 1947), and had been fired from another position by Morsi,but was named director of that powerful body on July 4, 2013,  the day after Sisi's coup, He is reportedly a one-time superior officer and patron of Sisi's in the intelligence community (and, according to Springborg, earlier in the mechanized infantry).

The new power players in Egypt may represent the so-called "Deep State." but they also are a Band of Brothers, a cadre of contemporaries and allies who may represent a more cohesive bloc in the military/intelligence sector than we have seen since the Free Officers of 1952. (Of course, the Free Officers did not remain united.)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

First They Came for Twitter . . .

Then they came for YouTube. Turkey has blocked YouTube in the wake of the leaking of another embarrassing audiotape, this one a security meeting about a possible war with Syria.

Saudis Officially Name Prince Muqrin Second-in-Line for Throne

When Saudi Arabia named Prince Muqrin bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz as Second Deputy Prime Minister a little over a year ago, I (and lots of others) noted that traditionally that job, the number three post in the Government the King is Prime Minister and the Crown Prince is First Deputy, usually has meant that the holder is in line to be the next Crown Prince. Now, the Royal Court has made it official, formally naming him Deputy Crown Prince.

While not a surprise, there will likely be speculation about the timing. King ‘Abdullah is 89 (he is already past 90 in hijri years), and ailing; Crown Prince Salman, though a much younger 78, has had at least one stroke and may have suffered some impairment. (King ‘Abdullah's two previous Crown Princes, Sultan and Nayef, both died before succeeding to the throne.)

That is unlikely to be an issiue with the much younger Muqrin, born in 1945 and still in his 60s. He is, however, the youngest of King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz' sons to have government experience, and is believed to be the youngest still living. The decision to put Muqrin in line for the throne assures that the throne will remain occupied by a son of the founder of the state,as was the case with Kings Sa‘ud, Faisal, Khalid, Fahd, and ‘Abdullah. But after Muqrin, the issue of passing the throne to the next generation (some of whom are themselves aging and ailing) will be unavoidable.

Muqrin served in the Royal Saudi Air Force, as governor of Hail and then Medina, and headed Saudi General Intelligence from 2005-2012.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Sisi Makes it Official

We can't say we didn't see it coming. As expected for months Field Marshal al-Sisi has resigned from the military today, and has announced that he is running for President. With the campaign season opening Monday, he was up against a deadline; serving military cannot run for public office. (Nor, in fact, can they even vote.)  The video in Arabic is at the end of this post, along with a full text in English.  Ahram Online provides excerpts:
"Today is the last time you’ll see me wearing this [military] uniform. I was honoured to wear it to defend the nation and today I am also leaving it behind to defend the nation,” said El-Sisi, stressing that he has been a member of the armed forces for over 45 years.
The last few years in Egypt have proved "that no one could be president without the people’s will,” he said.
"My determination to run in the election does not bar others from their right to run. I will be happy if whoever the people choose succeeds,” he said, adding that he hopes for "a nation for all without exclusion.”
Any Egyptian who has not been convicted by the law, El-Sisi said, is unconditionally welcomed to be an active partner in the future of Egypt.
He said that he does not intend to "have a traditional campaign but rather a comprehensive vision for the nation to rise,” and called on his supporters not "to spend a lot” for his campaign.
The presidential hopeful also expressed his determination to fight for a "fearless Egypt."
"Egypt is rich with its resources and people [and yet] it relies on donations and assistance. This is not acceptable.
Egyptians deserve much better," he said.
El-Sisi pointed out that Egypt faces serious economic, social, political and security-related challenges that existed before the 25 January 2011 revolution and have continued after the 30 June 2013 protests which led to the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi.
Egyptians deserve to live with dignity, security and freedom, he said, in addition to having access to jobs, food, education, medicine and housing.
"Production must start again in all state apparatuses. Our mission is to restore Egypt,” he said.
It's a predictable campaign platform, but the coming weeks will show us if Sisi has a program or just slogans. Sisi is so popular right now because the Muslim Brotherhood failed so miserably to address any of these issues (platform: "Islam is the solution").

During today's meeting between SCAF and President Adly Mansour, Lt. Gen. Sidqi Subhi, the Armed Forces Chief of Staff, was promoted to full General, a rank normally reserved for the Defense Minister and a sign he is in line for that job.

As an aside, and keeping in mind that Mansour is still the interim President and Sisi one of his Cabinet Ministers, take a look at the body language in the photo at left: which one is being deferential?

Lest you forget Sisi's military background, there's the official photo of today's meeting of SCAF with Mansour; as always in SCAF photos, the Navy and Air Force chiefs look a little lonely:
Here is the speech itself, followed by an English text provided by Egyptian Streets and posted to their Facebook page.

And the translation, as published by Egyptian Streets:
 "Great people of Egypt,
Today, I stand before you in my military uniform for the last time for I have made up my mind to retire as the Minister of Defense. I have spent my whole life as a soldier of this homeland serving its hopes and aspirations and so I will continue.

This is a very significant moment for me. The first time I wore the military uniform was in 1970 as 15-year cadet in the Air Force High School, almost 45 years ago. And I will always be proud of wearing the uniform of defending my country.

These recent years of our nation's history have conclusively shown that no one can become president of Egypt against the will of the people or short of their support. Never can anyone force Egyptians to vote for a president they do not want. Therefore, I am here before you humbly stating my intention to run for the presidency of the Arab Republic of Egypt.

Only your support will grant me this great honor.

I stand before you to say true and genuine words as always. I say to you that I will answer the demand of a wide range of Egyptians who have called on me to run for this honorable office. And I will always remain in the service of this country in any capacity desired by Egyptians.

The great people of Egypt,

In this moment that I stand before you, I intend to remain as honest with you, with my country and with myself as I have always been.

We, Egyptians, have an extremely difficult task and a costly mission. The economic, social, political and security realities - whether before January 25th Revolution 2011 or the accumulations afterwards until June 30th Revolution 2013- have reached the limit that requires an honest and brave confrontation of challenges.

We must be honest to ourselves. Our country is facing monumental challenges while our economy is weak. Millions of our youths are suffering from unemployment. This cannot be acceptable.

Millions of Egyptians are sick and cannot find cure. This is also unacceptable.

Egypt is rich with its resources and people while it relies on donations and assistance. This is not acceptable, either.

Egyptians deserve to a lead a life of dignity, security and freedom. They deserve to have a job, food, education, medical treatment and affordable homes.
We, Egyptians, face tough challenges:

- The flapping state systems that cannot perform their duties need rebuilding. This is an issue that requires firm handling so that these systems can recover, cohere, unify and be in tune.

- Production has to resume in all sectors to save our country real dangers.

- The State needs to regain its posture and power that suffered much in the past period of time.

Our mission is to restore Egypt.

What Egypt witnessed in the last years in politics or media, internally or externally made this country occasionally trespassed. It is time for this disrespect and this intrusion to stop. This is an esteemed country and everyone must know that this is a decisive moment that disrespecting Egypt is an adventure with consequences that Egypt is not a playground for any internal, regional or international party and will never be.

I believe the realization of the future roadmap formulated by the truly patriotic forces in a decisive moment in the history of this nation has been our immediate task. On this path, God has ensured us success in drafting the constitution and here we are, taking our second stride to the presidential elections to be followed by the legislative elections.

My nomination for office should not deny others their right and duty to run if they see themselves competent to undertake the responsibility. I will certainly be pleased with the choice of the people and the winner of the voters' trust.

I call upon the partners of this nation to realize that we all – the sons and daughters of Egypt- are in the same boat navigating to safety with no scores to settle or temporary disputes to pursue. We need our motherland for all its children with no alienation, exclusion or discrimination. We have open arms to everybody here or abroad declaring that any Egyptian not indicted by the law that we all abide by is an active partner in making the future with no limits or restraints.

The great people of Egypt

Despite all the hardships that our country is going through, I stand before you without the slightest feeling of despair or doubt. I rather stand with absolute faith in God and in your strong will to change Egypt to the better and usher your country to its rightful place among advanced nations.

It was your will that made the change. It was not the politicians or the military that removed two regimes. It is you, the people.

The greatness of the Egyptian will have been evidently witnessed. However, we need to recognize that we are destined to do all in our powers to overcome future difficulties. The making of the future is a joint effort. It is a contract between the ruler and the people where the ruler is responsible before God and the people for his part and the people also have a commitment to work hard and show patience. A ruler cannot succeed alone it takes the joint effort of both the ruler and the people to succeed.

The whole Egyptian people know that big victories can be attained for they have done that before. Yet, our will and desire to achieve victory have to couple with hard work.

The abilities and talents of 7 thousand years have to ally with hard work.

It is the hard, sincere and patriotic work that makes successful countries. Every Egyptian able to work will be required to exert real efforts and I will be the first to spare no pains for a future well-earned by Egypt. This is the time to rally for the sake of our country.

With complete openness and under the circumstances that you all know, I am not going to launch a traditional presidential campaign. However, it is your right to share my vision of the future. This will be in a clear platform that seeks a modern and democratic Egypt once the High Electoral Commission allows for that. Yet, if you may, I will do that with no extravagance neither in words, funds or traditional practices for the circumstances are not in our favor.

My fellow citizens

We are threatened by the terrorists by parties who seek the destruction of our life, safety and security. It is true this is my last day in uniform but I will fight every day for Egypt free of fear and terror not only Egypt but the whole region. I repeat what I have said before we'd rather die before Egyptians are terrorized.

Finally, I will speak about hope hope that is the outcome of hard work hope that is the security and stability. Hope is the dream to usher Egypt to its leading place in the world. It is the dream to restore its strength, power and influence and teach the world as it did before.

I cannot make miracles. Rather, I propose hard work and self-denial. And know that if I am granted the honor of the leadership, I promise that we together, leadership and people, can achieve stability, safety and hope for Egypt.

God bless Egypt and its glorious people.

Thank you."

35 Years Since the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty

It was 35 years ago today, March 26, 1979, that Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menahem Begin of Israel signed the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty with US President Jimmy Carter looking on, after a year and a half of negotiations following Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977 and the first Camp David Summit the following year. It was the first formal Arab peace with Israel and led to Egypt's exclusion from the Arab League for a decade.Despite skepticism among many, it has endured through multiple changes of leadership in both countries, including Muhammad Morsi's tenure in Egypt. Relations have not always been smooth, but the treaty has endured for three and a half decades.

Maybe This Explains It

In my post yesterday about the mass Egyptian death sentences that have outraged the world,  I noted that only four people were executed for the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, while an incredible 529 people are sentenced here in the death of a single policeman. How could that be?

This is making the rounds on social media: "Picture of the al-Minya officer during his killing at the hands of 529 terrorists." A grim joke given the subject matter, but to the point.

Egypt's State Media Reporting Sisi Will Resign Today

Egyptian state media are reporting that Egyptian Field Marshal al-Sisi will resign as Defense Minister today during a meeting of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces; a Cabinet meeting tomorrow will presumably approve and, once a civilian, Sisi will be free to run for President.

The only suspense for some time has been in the timing, and it looks like that is now ending.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Egyptian Death Sentences

I've waited a full day to comment on the 529 (some reports say 528) death sentences passed down in one blow in Egypt yesterday, mostly because I'm speechless. The strong nationalist feeling against the Muslim Brotherhood has been in evidence since last summer, but the sheer enormity of this is unprecedented. And 683 more went on trial today.

The United Nations Human Rights Chief, the US State Department and most other countries, and Amnesty International and other human rights groups are unified in condemning the whole proceeding. The defendants' lawyers claim not to have been shown the evidence against their clients. The traditional independence of the Egyptian judiciary has long been in jeopardy, but the scale of this is mind-boggling. I can only assume that most of these sentences will eventually be reduced or commuted: Egypt is not Saddam's Iraq.

A note: after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, 24 people were tried but only four (Khalid Islambouli and three others) were executed. Four people for assassinating a President, but 529 all blamed for the death of a single police officer?

I hope the sentences are quietly set aside after the Presidential election.

Monday, March 24, 2014

One of T. E. Lawrence's Desert Camps is Located "Nearly Intact"

In this centennial year of the outbreak of the First World War, there have been a number of stories in the British press noting the discovery of one of T.E.Lawrence's guerrilla camps used in raiding the Hijaz railroad''s being reported as still nearly intact, with remnants of food and of rum and gin bottles. Stories have appeared in the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times, he latter mostly behind a paywall, but you can also find an account of how it was found here,

A Salafi Selfie

Someone has noticed that in Arabic, which doesn't normally write vowels, "Salafi" and "Selfie" are spelled exactly the same way: a Salafi selfie:
A hat tip to Bill Lawrence.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Banning Twitter BOOSTS Twitter Use in Turkey?

Now, I'm fully aware that Hurriyet Daily News are hardly friendly with Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan and his AKP Party, but they are reporting that after yesterday's ban on Twitter,that
"Twitter usage SOARS in Turkey, let alone succumbing to 'the ban'."
The number of active Twitter users, as well as tweeted messages, has soared since the Turkish government blocked access to the popular social media platform, new statistics have shown.
The access to Twitter was blocked in the first hour of March 21. According to figures published by social media rating agency Somera, over 6 million Turks tweeted from March 20, 23:00, to March 21, 12:00. Only 4.5 million tweets were sent the previous day in the same time slot when there was no blocking. The difference correspondents to a 33 percent rise.

The number of tweeting Turkish users have also risen by 17 percent, from 1.49 million to 1.75 million comparing the same periods. The Turkish activity on Twitter was 16 percent lower than the previous day one hour before midnight. Just after the access was blocked, it quickly rose, hitting 95 percent more than the previous day and remained in record highs even at 03:00 am as seen in the graph:
In last night's post I already talked about one workaround. There are others. The Prime Minister promise that "Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic" seems to have a somewhat hollow echo by now. For one thing the Turkish President, Erdoğan's former colleague and AKP ally, Abdullah Gül, denounced it. How? On Twitter of course:
I don't read Turkish but I understand he's saying that blocking Twitter posts against which there was a court order would have been sufficient and that blocking Twitter altogether violated both privacy and freedom of expression.

So now, Erdoğan's own party is unhappy. Now there are reports that Twitter is negotiating a restoration. Did we see "the power of the Turkish Republic" here, or the power of social media?

Morocco Lifts Ban on Amazigh Names

It's rather unusual that I have two posts in succession on Amazigh ("Berber") languages, but after my previous post on Mzab in Algeria, here's another: "Morocco Lifts the Ban on Amazigh Names."
The High Commission of the Civil Registry confirmed on Monday the freedom of Moroccans to choose the names of their children, provided the names do not breach morality or public order, without distinction between Arabic, Amazigh, Hassani, or Hebrew names, and in accordance with the provisions of the law relating to civil status.
Hasssani is a dialect of Arabic particularly associated with Mauritania an the Western Sahara.
Anir, Sifaw, Tifawt, Thiyya, and Bahac are some of the many Amazigh names that had been unauthorized in Morocco.
The Amazigh families have been denied the right to name their children some Amazigh names since 1996, when a circular was sent to Moroccan civil status registry offices banning Amazigh names.
Since then, activists have led a fierce campaign against what they call a “racist and discriminatory law” targeting Amazighs, and Amazigh associations have been putting pressure on Moroccan authority to recognize Amazigh names.
Arab Spring may be withering, but the less-touted Amazigh Spring seems to be moving right along.

Algeria's Ghardaia: Spelling and Etymology as Identity?

I haven't blogged about it, but there has been a recent resurgence of ethnic/sectarian clashes in Algeria's Mzab Valley, an oasis region in the Sahara where Berber tribesmen who speak Berber and practice the Ibadi sect of Islam live alongside Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims of the Maliki legal school (like most North African Sunnis). Actually, in my second month of blogging I wrote about an earlier outbreak of Sunni-Ibadi violence in the town of Berriane. The latest round of violence involves the town of Ghardaia, largest town in the Mzab.

The Algerian linguist-blogger Lameen Souag, whose Jabal al-Lughat blog I frequently quote, (as recently as noting his new book just a week ago), has a new post on a linguistic aspect of the conflict: "Ghardaia: etymology, spelling, and politics." It's interesting, and I hope he won't mind my doing such extensive quoting (the Linguistics professor explains it better than I could). Please go read the whole thing. He sets the stage thus:
What's going on is far too localised to be explained in terms of "Arabs" and "Berbers" (contra AFP); at most, it's between Chaamba (Sh`ānba) and Mzabis (Mozabites). But the Mzabis speak Berber, practice Ibadi Islam (a small minority sect), are native to the town, and have a famously strong mercantile tradition; the Chaamba speak Arabic, practice Maliki Islam (like the rest of Algeria), used to be nomads with a strong martial tradition, and by and large are less well off. . . .
And after some more background, gets to the linguistic aspect:
Oddly enough, however, not only language but even etymology is being used as a tool of division. As I looked through page after depressing page on the events, I was surprised to notice that, while Mzabi pages, and neutral ones, spelled Ghardaia غرداية (Ghardāyah), Chaambi pages rather consistently spelled it غارداية (Ghārdāyah). The latter spelling turns out to be based on a folk etymology, deriving the name of "Ghardaia" from Arabic ghār "cave" plus Dāyah, the name of a woman – who some Chaamba claim was from the Arab tribe of Said Atba, proving that Arabs got there before the Mzabis did (قبائل الشعانبة… بنو سُليم الجزائر.) Mzabis have a version of the same etymology, in fact (chanson amazigh mozabit) – but according to them, Daya was a saintly Ibadi woman from Touat, proving that they were there first.
Either version is problematic, since the name is pronounced ɣərdāya (Berber taɣərdayt), not ɣārdāya. The Said Atba idea is especially implausible: in 1053, when Ghardaia was reportedly founded, Ibadi Berbers had been trading across the Sahara for centuries, whereas Arab nomads had barely begun to reach the area. Phonetically, the more obvious etymology is Mzabi Berber taɣərdayt "mouse" – but who'd name a town "Mouse"? Delheure suggested a derivation from tiɣərdin "shoulders", a term found in Ouargli Berber, based on its topography (followed eg here). Dabouz compares it to a Nafusi term reportedly meaning "land next to a wadi". No proposal seems entirely satisfactory, which is itself an indicator of the placename's antiquity.
Be that as it may, this pointed use of "cave of Dāyah" reinforces my impression that what's going on is a mapping of economic grievances onto ethnic/religious categories. Adding this one letter effectively says "Mzabis own this place, but by rights it should be ours" – a thoroughly wrong attitude. الله يهديهم ويهدينا!
 The last line means "May God guide them and guide us."

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Turkey Bans Twitter; Turks Tweet About It Anyway

Turkey banned Twitter today, after Prime Minister Erdoğan threatened to do so at a campaign rally in Bursa. He blames Twitter for spreading links to leaked tapes implicating him and his government to a corruption schedule, and he told the rally, “We now have a court order. We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.” He also threatened Facebook and other social media.

The power of the Turkish Republic notwithstanding, there was some lag time between the threat and the deed, and before ISPs in Turkey had blocked access to Twitter, Twitter sent this:
So once Twitter went dark online, Turks started messaging their comments, including the cartoons below and lots of denunciation, vociferously tweeting, via SMS, about the shutdown of Twitter. This may not have demonstrated the power of the Turkish Republic quite as effectively as Erdoğan intended. SMS has its limitations of course, but it gave Turks a means to express themselves, at least, to the outside world if not within Turkey.

When the Turkish Parliament passed a new, tough Internet law last month, I noted that "Critics claim that the bill is in response to revelations published on social media pointing to government corruption, and that the intention is to block further revelations." It looks as if those critics might have a point.

Nowruz Greetings

Nowruz greetings to all who are celebrating! The spring equinox is today. I've gone into various aspects of Nowruz in my Nowruz posts for previous years, explaining the traditions associated with the ancient Persian New Year, which is celebrated far beyond the borders of Iran: In Iranian-influenced areas well up into Central Asia on the one side, in Turkey and parts of the Balkans on the other; also among Kurds, Syrian Alawites and others in the Middle East, as well as by followers of the Zoroastrian and Baha'i faiths regardless of ethnic origin, and of course the broad Iranian diaspora. Nowruz means "New Day," a fine note to sound for spring, so a happy Nowruz to all.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Did the Media Ignore the US Capture of the Libyan Tanker?

The US recapture of the Libyan tanker Morning Glory a few days back was something I didn't comment on, being on deadline, but I certainly noticed it happened. Christian Caryl at Foreign Policy, though, complains that much of the media didn't: SEALed and Delivered in Libya.

I think the complaint about it being overshadowed by the NCAA and reality TV might be a bit unfair though: surely the Crimea, the missing airliner, and other substantive stories had something to do with it, too.

El-Said Badawi

A few weeks go I cited the great dictionary of Egyptian Colloquial Arabic by Martin Hinds and El-Said Badawi, and noted that while Hinds passed away some time ago, I believed Professor Badawi, who trained generations of students in Arabic, including me, was still with us. Now, this sad news comes from the American University in Cairo:
It is with deep sorrow and an overwhelming sense of loss that we announce the passing of Professor Emeritus El-Said Badawi, Professor of Arabic Language and Linguistics in the Department of Applied Linguistics at the American University in Cairo. Dr. Badawi passed away on Saturday evening after a heroic battle with illness. The funeral procession took place on Sunday, March 16, and condolences may be extended at El Hamdiyya El Shazliyya Mosque on Thursday, March 20, after Maghreb prayers. Founder of the highly reputed MA program in Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language and long-standing director of the Arabic Language Institute, Dr. Badawi was a distinguished member of the AUC community, which he joined in 1967. Famed for his groundbreaking scholarship, Dr.Badawi's erudition has inspired generations of Arabists in Egypt and around the world. A true educator, he was gifted in the classroom as well, reliably managing to bring out the very best in his students. While his passionate dedication to the field earned him their love and respect, his signature sparkling wit endeared him to friends and colleagues far and wide. Dr. Badawi is survived by his wife, Mrs. Mary Badawi, retired veteran English instructor at AUC's ELI, and by four children and a number of grandchildren. The details of a memorial service at the university to celebrate his life and achievements will be announced in due course.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Israel's Stepped-Up Air Defense Alerts: MH 370. Gaza, and Perhaps Iran as Well?

Blogging may be light for a couple of more days due to Spring issue deadlines at the end of the month, but there's been some attention paid in Israel to reports the country has stepped up it's air defenses due to the uncertainties about the whereabouts of the missing Malaysian airliner. (I may be the only person who hasn't talked about that yet, but until now, other than the two Iranians on fake passports, there was no resonance in the Middle East.)

Since there's no evidence of what actually happened but some evidence pointing to some nefarious purpose, it's hardly news that Israel (and other countries in the region I would presume, not least India and China) might be stepping up the vigilance of their air defenses. Claims (among the many other theories) that the aircraft might have landed somewhere in non-government controlled regions of Afghanistan or northwestern Pakistan (and be under Afghan or Pakistani Taliban control) may be wildly improbable (surely US, Indian, and Pakistani intelligence monitoring has that area pretty much saturated). Even if there's a remote chance, though, no one wants another 9/11. Well, no neighboring state does.

But I would also note that even before the reports of stepped-up Israeli measures due to MH370, Israel had already announced a limited callup of air defense reserves last week after a barrage of rockets from Gaza and Israel's retaliation. That, and the fact that belligerent rhetoric towards Iran has seen a resurgence lately, all may contribute to an enhanced alert condition for Israel's air defenses.

Ahram: Sisi Announcement Coming Soon?

 Ahram Online notes: "Clock is ticking for El-Sisi as all set for him to launch presidency bid."

They point to the recent reshuffle of some senior Army commanders (including the replacement of the Second Field Army Commander with his Chief of Staff), as a sign that Field Marshal Sisi is getting the Army Command the way he wants it before resigning as Defense Minister to run for President. The Second Field Army, based in Ismailia, is conducting the antiterrorist operations in Sinai.

They also note that the Presidential Elections Committee yesterday finalized the regulations for the Presidential elections, though the date has not yet been officially announced. President Adly Mansur has said that the election will be complete by July 17.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Traditional Annual Saint Patrick's Day Post on the Links Between the Coptic and Early Irish Churches

Happy Saint Patrick's Day. And for Jewish readers, belated greetings for Purim, which I should have posted on Friday.

Coptic Wheel Cross
Every year since 2009, I have reposted or linked to my original 2009 post on the faint but apparently real links between the Coptic Church of Egypt, where monasticism was invented, and the early Irish church.
Celtic Wheel Cross

It's the sort of thing you do when you're a specialist on Egyptian history also named Michael Collins Dunn, but it's also been a popular post. Herewith, with some added illustrations, the original text:

Happy Saint Patrick's Day everyone, an appropriate wish here since the Irish Church Patrick founded seems to have been the religious and monastic daughter of the Church of Egypt (the Coptic Church).

Coptic Ankh Cross
Ah, you're thinking: he's really reaching this time, trying to find a way to work Saint Patrick's Day into a blog on the Middle East. My name is, after all, Michael Collins Dunn, and I'm therefore rarely assumed to have Greek or Japanese ancestry, but actually it's not a reach to find a reason for a Saint Patrick's Day post on the Middle East, since Irish Christianity has ancient, if somewhat hard to document, links to Egypt, and Saint Patrick himself may have studied alongside Egyptian monks. They say everyone's Irish on Saint Patrick's Day, but I'm going to explore how Egypt and Ireland have links dating back to the earliest days of Christianity in the West. And while some of the evidence is a bit hazy, none of this is crackpot theory. I warned you that I started out as a medievalist, and still have flashbacks sometimes. Forgive me if I can't footnote every statement here.

Irish Standing Wheel Cross
Anyone who has ever seen one of the standing crosses that are a familiar feature of medieval and post-classical Irish Christian sites will know what the Celtic Cross or "wheel cross" looks like; anyone who has ever set foot in a Coptic Church will know what a Coptic Cross looks like; unfortunately the illustrations at Wikipedia's Coptic Cross site don't include a precise example, but the wheel cross is common among Egyptian Copts as well, and can be seen on many churches in Egypt today. [Illustrations added after original post.] The wheel cross is not an obvious derivation of the Christian cross, and many think it is an adaptation of the ancient Egyptian Ankh symbol, so what is it doing on those Irish standing cross towers?

Sure, iconography can repeat itself: both Indians in India and Native Americans used the swastika long before Hitler did, and so on. But the Celtic Cross/Coptic Cross similarity is not the only link. There is pretty decent evidence that Christianity in Ireland, if not immediately derived from Egypt, was closely linked to the Egyptian Church. An ancient litany in the Book of Leinster prays for "the seven holy Egyptian monks, who lie in Desert Ulaidh." The place mentioned is somewhere in Ulster, with many placing it in Antrim: perhaps suggestively, "desert" or "disert" in Irish place names meant a place where monks lived apart from the world as anchorites, modeled on the Desert Fathers of Egypt and Syria. "Ulaidh" just means Ulster.Who these seven holy Egyptian monks were is unclear, but they died in Ulster and were sufficiently venerated to be remembered in a litany.

It is often said (I haven't got a firm cite though) that holy water bottles found in Ireland carry the twin-camel emblem associated with the Shrine of Saint Menas west of Alexandria. (Menas was one of the major patron saints of Egypt, his shrine a major pilgrimage center, and his cult extended far beyond Egypt.) If so, I don't think the Irish were using local camels as models. There are also said to be tombstones in old Irish ogham writing that refer to the burial of so-and-so "the Egyptian." The earliest Irish forms of monasticism included anchorite communities who withdrew from the world and venerated the tradition of Saint Anthony of Egypt; the early Irish church used an Eastern rather than a Western date for Easter; some aspects of ancient Celtic liturgy resemble eastern liturgies, and there are archaeological evidences (mostly probable Egyptian pottery in Ireland and British — Cornish? — tin in Egypt) of trade between Egypt and the British Isles. "Double" monasteries — where a monastery for monks and a convent for nuns were adjacent — first appeared in Egypt, and were common in Ireland. The evidence may be circumstantial, but there's a lot of it.

I've also heard (but can't Google up the reference just now) that somewhere in the Irish monastic literature there is a pilgrimage guide to the Desert of Scetis, the Egyptian desert region of Coptic monasteries today known as the Wadi Natrun. That, along with the Saint Menas holy water bottles, suggests Irish monks made pilgrimages all the way to Egypt. And obviously those seven holy Egyptian monks in Ulster made the trip the other way.

But do these connections between Egypt and Ireland, tenuous as they may seem, really connect in any way with Saint Patrick, justifying this as a Saint Patrick's Day post? I'm glad you asked.

Saint Patrick's life has been much encrusted with mythology (the snakes, the Shamrock, etc.) and all we can really say for certain is what he himself told us in his autobiographical Confession: he was born somewhere on the western coast of Roman Britain (so the Apostle of Ireland was British, but before there was such a thing as an Englishman since the Angles and Saxons were not yet present: he probably spoke old British, an ancestor of Welsh), was kidnapped and enslaved in Ireland, later escaped and joined the church, and returned as the apostle of Ireland. But very ancient biographies (though not his own autobiographical account, one of the few vernacular Latin works to survive from the period) say that he studied for the priesthood at the Abbey of Lérins off the south coast of France. This was a Mediterranean island abbey much influenced by the church of Egypt and the rule of Saint Anthony of Egypt, and according to some accounts, many Coptic monks were present there. There's no certainty that Patrick ever studied there, but then, he studied somewhere, and this is the only place claimed by the early accounts. So Patrick himself may have had direct links to the Egyptian church. (And remember that until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD — by which time Patrick was already a bishop in Ireland, himself dying in 461 by most accounts — the Coptic Church and the rest of Christendom were still in full communion.)

There may be even more to it than this. A few linguists believe that the Celtic languages, though Indo-European in their basic structure, have a "substratum" of some previous linguistic element that is not found in other Indo-European languages, only in Celtic, but some aspects of which are also found in Afro-Asiatic languages, particularly Berber and Egyptian (of which Coptic, of course, is the late form). I'm certainly not qualified to judge such linguistically abstruse theories, and know neither Irish nor Coptic, and they seem to have little to do with the question of Egyptian-Irish Christian influences. But it helps remind us that the ancient world was more united by the sea than divided by it, and that the Roman Empire stretched from the British Isles to Mesopotamia.

While the links are tenuous, they appear to be real. Irish historians accept some level of Egyptian influence in the Christianization of Ireland, and Coptic historians love to dwell on the subject, since it lets them claim a link to the earliest high Christian art and culture of Western Europe. If Irish monasticism preserved the heritage of the ancient world and rebuilt the West after the barbarian invasions, and if the Irish church is a daughter of the Egyptian church, then the West owes more to Egypt than most would imagine.

I first heard a discussion of this in a presentation by the Coptic Church's bishop in charge of ecumenical outreach, Bishop Samweel, back in the early 1970s. I later ran across several references to it in British orientalist literature (Stanley Lane-Poole seems to have been particularly fond of it, and I think he places Desert Ulaidh near Carrickfergus), and continue to find it intriguing, if never quite clear enough to nail down precisely.

Bishop Samweel, mentioned above, met an unfortunate end by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, by the way. When Anwar Sadat deposed Coptic Pope Shenouda III in 1981, Sadat named Samweel — considered one of the Coptic church's leading figures after Shenouda — head of a council of bishops to run the church while the Patriarch was in exile. Due to this appointment, Bishop Samweel was seated on the reviewing stand behind Sadat on October 6, 1981, and died in the volley of fire which killed the President.

Like much of the earliest history of any culture or country, the links between Irish and Egyptian Christianity are fairly well-delineated but their precise origins are untraceable, but tantalizing. Since this is little known to most Westerners or even to Egyptians who aren't Copts, it seemed appropriate to mention it on Saint Patrick's Day.

Erin go bragh. Misr Umm al-Dunya

UPDATE: For other developments since 2009, see also "The Faddan More Psalter: More Evidence of the Coptic Links to Early Irish Christianity," posted last year about an Irish psalmbook with a cover stiffened with Egyptian papyrus.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Lameen Souag's New Book on Egyptian Siwi Berber

Egypt has only one language in the Berber language family spoken within its borders: Siwi, spoken in the Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert. Algerian linguist Lameen Souag, whose linguistics blog Jabal al-Lughat is wonderful but far too rarely updated, has announced the publication of his new study: Berber and Arabic in Siwa (Egypt): A Study in Linguistic Contact.

He outlines the contents at the link, and the publisher's announcement is here. It's almost 300 pages (but also almost 50 Euros). He comments:
Based on part of my doctoral thesis [at SOAS] but significantly expanded, this book:
  • proposes a classification of Siwi within Berber, and a corresponding probable account of where this Berber variety originated;
  • describes the grammar of Siwi, in greater detail than any previous work;
  • establishes how, and how much, long-term contact with Arabic has affected its grammar;
  • examines the dialectal affiliations of Arabic loans in Siwi, providing further evidence that this contact involved very different varieties at different periods;
  • provides a number of fully glossed Siwi texts of different genres, illustrating Siwi grammar and casting light on Siwi culture.
Some interesting-sounding stuff here for anyone interested in Berber, in contact borrowing among languages, or minority populations in the Arab world. I know Lameen only through commenting on each other's blogs, but bravo.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Bab al-Khalq

I'm a bit under the weather today and have tons to do, so just a link for now: an Ahram Online piece on Cairo History: "Bab Al-Khalq: Stories of a Canal, a Street, a Museum and a National Library," relating to the bomb-damaged Islamic museum and Old Dar al-Kutub and their neighborhood.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

No Government Officials Attend Funeral for Deputy Head of Egypt's Jewish Community

The Deputy Head of Egypt's minuscule and dwindling Jewish community, Nadia Shehata Haroun, who was also the younger sister of community head Magda Haroun, died late last week and was buried yesterday. A rabbi was flown in from Turkey: the only open synagogue has no rabbi and the Haroun family refused to use one from the Israeli Embassy. Their late father Shehata Haroun was a leftist and a strong critic of Israel.

While the report in the (state-owned) Ahram Online merely notes that "Hundreds gathered at Adly Street Synagogue in downtown Cairo on Tuesday to pay respects," it fails to mention what Egypt Independent does note: "Govt absent in Jewish community vice president funeral."

I previously discussed Egypt's Jewish community last year when the previous President, Carmen Weinstein, died. Note to that while Ahram puts the number remaining at less than a hundred, the other sources estimate it at 20. All are believed to be women now, and worship is not held in the one open synagogue for lack of  a minyan.

UAE Moving Ahead on Compulsory Military Service Plans

I don't think I've mentioned it on the blog before, but one indicator of continuing security concerns in the Gulf is the UAE's Plan to introduce compulsory national military service for young Emirati males (as well as voluntary service for women).

The plan, introduced earlier this year and since approved by the Cabinet, is expected to be in place by the end of the year, While government officials are talking up the benefits for Emirati youth, it's also pretty  clearly an indicator of the UAE's ongoing concerns about Iran and other security threats in the region, and is apparently being fast-tracked..

Rainbow Over Cairo: Not Something You See Every Day

I already mentioned the heavy rains and flooding in Egypt. Now Zeinobia's blog brings us something that's rare indeed: a photo of a double rainbow over Cairo.

How Old is Egyptian "Belly-Dance," Anyway?

During the Muslim Brotherhood year in control of Egypt, I frequently reported on the decline of the art of raqs sharqi or "Eastern dance," what Westerners call the belly-dance, in Egypt, and promised a series on the history of that fine art. I still hope to find the time to do that.

Egypt is often considered one of the true roots of the dance, for reasons we'll consider in detail eventually. That can be documented from the 19th century onward with some confidence. But just how far back does it go?

This is not meant as a serious scholarly post by any means, but I want to present two photographs. The one on the left is one of the earliest human figurines found in Egypt, a terracotta figure of a woman now in the Brooklyn Museum and usually called "Dancer" or "Bird Lady." It dates from the Pre-Dynastic Naqada IIA Period, about 3500 BC or 5500 years before the present. At that antiquity one expects earth mother goddesses, but they would not be covered below the waist. Is she a dancer?

The photo on the right is of Dina, sometimes called "the last Egyptian belly-dancer" due to the influx of foreigners. It's a screencap from one of her performances. She is obviously wearing (though only slightly) more above the waist than her 5500 year-old predecessor, but I was struck by the resemblance. Anybody looking for a dissertation topic?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ambassador Samuel W. Lewis, 1930-2014

Sam Lewis (ADST)
Ambassador Samuel W. Lewis, retired US diplomat and Ambassador to Israel, has died at the age of 83. Lewis served as Ambassador to Israel from 1977-1985, under both Presidents Carter and Reagan, the longest tenure of any US Ambassador to Israel. During his diplomatic career he also served as Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs and Director of the Policy Planning Staff.

He was well known to many of us at MEI in his more active days; early in my tenure as Editor, I published an article by Sam Lewis in The Middle East Journal, Summer 1999, looking at the history of US-Israeli relations.

Though a longtime supporter of Israel, Ambassador Lewis was a strong advocate for a negotiated settlement, serving on Advisory Boards of the Israel Policy Forum and, more recently, J Street.

UPDATE: The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training tells the story of Ariel Sharon's effort to get rid of Sam Lewis.  If we are judged by the enemies we make ....

Monday, March 10, 2014

Would Field Marshal Sisi Be Egypt's First Truly Cairene President?

I've criticized the "Sisi cult" in Egypt and its excesses, and I take no joy from the arrests of journalists and activists who seem to have no connection with the Muslim Brotherhood, but barring something unforeseen Field Marshal Sisi seems to be on n inevitable course to e election as President, since many Egyptians seem to feel he can walk on water (reasonable enough since the Egyptian Army recently cured AIDS and Hepatitis C with a magic wand).

But despite many negative aspects of yet another military President, there may be one positive thing to note about Sisi: he is a genuine product of Cairo. A while back I noted  an excellent article in Le Monde Diplomatique on how most of Egypt's leaders had mostly been alienated from Cairo: the kings preferred Alexandria; Sadat retreated to his home village in the Delta; Mubarak preferred Sharm al-Sheikh. Only Nasser loved and identified with Cairo, but he wasn't born there. Muhammad Morsi was from the Delta, and didn't carry Cairo in the elections.

But Sisi is, if nothing else, a true Cairene, and (this would make a US campaign spin artist overjoyed) from one of the most iconic parts of the old city: he was born in Gamaliyya, the section of Fatimid Cairo where Naguib Mahfouz set his Nobel-Prize-winning Cairo Trilogy (and other famous works such as Midaq Alley) are set. His father runs shops in the Khan al-Khalili, the famous tourist bazaar.

He isn't a rags-to-riches tale however: his brothers are all professionals, including a judge and a doctor, and the father apparently prospered with his shop selling inlaid woods and other artisanal products; but he has deeper Cairo ties than other recent leaders.

This is not an endorsement: just an observation.

An Egyptian Soldier Writes Home from a Roman Legion in Europe

For a little Classical interlude, here's a piece about a surviving letter home from a Roman Legionary from Egypt writing home to his family in the Egyptian town of Tebtunis in the Fayyum. The writer, Aurelius Polion, was stationed with Legio II Adiutrix and was stationed in Pannonia in southeastern Europe. No exact date but it sounds like 2nd/3rd century AD.

Heavy Rains and Flooding in Egypt

Heavy rains in Egypt have taken at least 26 lives, flooded villages, collapsed roofs, and led to evacuations. Part of the airport roof at the Red Sea resort town of Hurghada has collapsed; flooding has been reported from Sinai, and flooding of tunnels and ramps in Cairo has snarled traffic (even more than usual). Separate bus accidents in Asyut and Hurghada took 24 lives and at least two died in a house collapse, though that toll is likely to rise.

Al-Masry Al-Yawm
While rain in winter is not that uncommon the heavy rains in Upper Egypt and Sinai are unusual, and follow a winter that saw snow in the Cairo suburbs for the first time in many years.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Saudis Designate the MB as Terrorists

It's been a busy day and I'm late in blogging, but I should at least note the latest round in the feuding among the GCC states: the Saudis have designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, along with Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) ordering Saudis fighting with those groups in Syria to return home. They join with Egypt and the UAE in their hostility to the Brotherhood, and do so days after pulling their Ambassador out of Qatar, the Brotherhood's main Gulf cheerleader.

Al-Sharq al-Awsat
The Brotherhood was already illegal in the Kingdom. Even when Muhammad Morsi was President of Egypt and made an official visit to the Kingdom, the Saudi paper Al-Sharq al-Awsat ran an article on the history of relations between the Kingdom and the Brotherhood  (link in Arabic) and, as I noted at the time, chose to illustrate it not with a picture of Morsi but with a 1936 photo of the Brotherhood's founder, Hasan al-Banna, bowing and kissing the hand of the Kingdom's founder, King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa‘ud (right).

I'm not sure Morsi got the message, but I suspect it was basically a put-down to these johnny-come-lately upstarts as to who gets to define Islam.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Algerian TV Actually Shows Bouteflika Speaking in Clip of Registration

Not only did Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika appear in public when registering to run for a fourth term, but now Algerian television has shown him actually speaking to the official, declaring  his intention to run.

It is the first time his voice has been publicly heard since his stroke. He is shown seated and his voice is thin and low, barely a whisper, but he does speak. Twelve candidates have now registered for the April 17 elections. The field may be reduced in vetting.

The Ultimate Buzzfeed Quiz: Which Ousted Arab Spring Leader Are You?

You know those annoying quizzes: Well, how about "Which Ousted Arab Spring Leader Are You?"

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

FP: "How Qatar Lost the Middle East."

At Foreign Policy: "How Qatar Lost the Middle East."

Damn. I must not have been paying attention again. Not only has somebody misplaced the Middle East yet again, but this time it's Qatar. When exactly did Qatar have the Middle East? Even Nasser never had it all. A microstate with oil, gas, and Al Jazeera had the whole Middle East? And then lost it? It's a pretty big thing to just lose.

This reminds me of the "Who lost China?" and  "Who lost Iran?" debates in US politics.

I'm pretty sure it's still there and not lost at all. Go to Cyprus and then head straight ahead or to the right. It's actually hard to miss.

Can you lose something you never actually had?

No, but you can over-bet on a weak hand at poker.

The GCC Fracture Lines Deepen

I've been busy most of today but I do feel the latest escalation in the feud between Qatar and its neighbors, in which Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain have withdrawn their ambassadors from Doha over alleged Qatari "interference" in their internal affairs, underscores the growing splits within the GCC over a range of issues involving Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian situation, and more. The KSA/UAE/Bahrain bloc also want a greater political union, which Qatar (and for somewhat different reasons, Oman) oppose, while Kuwait is somewhere in the middle.

This is part of the far deeper polarization we are seeing throughout the region, of course.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

What's in a Name? The Streets of Abu Dhabi

It's not unusual in older Middle Eastern cities to find that a given street is usually known by a name other than its official one; older Cairenes long clung to pre-1952 names regardless of what the official nameplates said, and in the era of frequent Syrian coups in the 1950s and 1960s, streets might be renamed with each turn of the revolving door.

But one expects a bit less of this in the newer Gulf cities. Abu Dhabi was not much more than a small town until the oil boom; many of its streets were laid out after independence in 1971, and there were still vast areas of streets without buildings when I first visited in 1981.

But, as this article in The National notes, the official numbered streets system led to streets being known by what was on them or what they went to rather than by their official numbers; now, a new system of renaming streets after prominent personalities is adding to the confusion.

Sultan Al Qassemi on Atheism in the Gulf States

Commentator/Analyst Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi seems to enjoy provoking controversy; remember the debate over his claim that Gulf cities are replacing the old Arab centers of Cairo and Beirut and Damascus? That produced a lot of heated disputation last October.

Well, I suspect he has tossed another fox into the henhouse with this piece at Al-Monitor (which is also where the cities piece appeared): "Gulf atheism in the age of social media."

It's an interesting piece, and dares to raise a subject that is even more taboo than sex or political change.

Algeria's Benflis Says He'll Stay in the Race

After Abdelaziz Bouteflika registered himself for a fourth term yesterday,  it's being reported that "dozens" of Presidential candidates have dropped out of the race, charging that Bouteflika's election is foreordained and criticizing his decision to run despite his age and health.

One who hasn't dropped out is former Prime Minister Ali Benflis, who announced his own candidacy in January and who says he's staying in the race.

For as good an explanation as I've seen on why the ailing Bouteflika will win anyway, see this article by Thomas Serres at Jadaliyya, translated from the French: "Bouteflika's Fourth Mandate: The Cartel's Gamble." The cartel he speaks of is essentially the military, political, and party establishments which, despite highly visible disagreements at times, manage to come together to preserve their own control of  the state apparatus.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Bouteflika Makes it Official

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika made his run for a fourth term official by signing electoral documents; he was shown arriving in a limo and also photographed seated at a table.

Bouteflika has not been shown standing or walking since his stroke last year.

That Egyptian Army AIDS Device

In part because I feel I've been snarky enough already about some recent developments in Egypt,  I deliberately decided  to avoid comment on last week's announcement by the Egyptian Military that they had developed a device that could detect and cure both AIDS and Hepatitis C without a blood test. The whole story has been unraveling ever since. Since I don't want to go into the details here for fear of being too irreverent, I'll refer you instead to this blog post at The Economist's "Pomegranate" blog, "It Gets Ever Sillier." It says what I would have said, but better.

The Economist's blog posts datelined Cairo are usually bylined "M.R." I'm sure it's purely a coincidence that their Cairo Bureau Chief is Max Rodenbeck. He grew up in Cairo (his father ran AUC Press for years) and Max wrote the wonderful Cairo: The City Victorious.

Egypt's and Tunisia's Participation in the Crimean War (the One in the 1850s)

With the Crimea so central to the news these days, Al-Arabiya reminds us that Egypt fought in the Crimean War as an ally of the Ottoman Empire. The title is a little overstated: "Arab Involvement in Crimean War 'Erased from History'". Not really, except insofar as the Crimean War itself (1853-1856) has been largely forgotten. In the English-speaking world most people know it, if at all, only for the charge of the Light Brigade, or perhaps Florence Nightingale. But it began as a conflict between Russia and the Ottomans, with Britain and France siding with the Ottomans.

Though Egypt was effectively self-governing from Muhammad Ali's time, it was still nominally under Ottoman suzerainty, and the Sultan requested naval and ground forces support from Egypt,  and also from Tunisia. Details of the Tunisian contribution are rather scanty, but the Egyptian role is fairly well known; it was written about by the scholarly Prince Omar Toussoun; and there's even a web page dealing with Egyptian uniforms in the Crimea. On the other hand, Zeinobia laments on her blog that most Egyptians have never heard of this episode.

Actually, the involvement in the Crimean War is probably better known than Egypt's dispatch of a battalion to fight for the Emperor Maximilian in Mexico a decade later.