A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Note on George Mitchell

I won't normally post on weekends -- that's family time -- but I thought I'd take a moment to gloat -- um, note -- that today's lead editorial in The Washington Post says pretty much the same thing I said three days earlier in one of my earliest posts. No particular point here: just noting the fact.

Friday, January 30, 2009

More on Daily Star Shutdown


(February 1 updating the below): The Daily Star is back after two lost weeks! (See below.) Their own explanation (not very detailed I'm afraid) of their rebirth is here. I would hope that even those who don't like their politics will be glad to see them back.

[Original Post]: I mentioned in passing yesterday that the Beirut Daily Star has been offline and out of print due to financial/legal issues. More on the subject here (IHT) and here (Al-Sharq al-Awsat).

The Daily Star has long been one of the most reliable and balanced English-language newspapers in the Middle East. I think most of us who follow the region from a distance will miss its website in particular. It wasn't just for Lebanese news, either. If it fails to make a comeback it will be a blow to English-language journalism in the region, though newspapers everywhere are suffering.

UPDATE: Just a note on following Lebanon with the Daily Star offline: most of the Lebanese press is online of course, so for those who read Arabic it's no problem, and there are French papers like L'Orient-Le Jour and others, but for English-only readers the lack of new postings at the Daily Star website leaves few options. One however is Naharnet, an English site from the respected Arabic daily Al-Nahar. If that Maronite owned newspaper's too pro-Western for you, there's always the English site of Hizbullah's al-Manar TV, one of the last places to still dateline things "Zionist Entity." I am not urging you to rely upon it for balanced opinion: the fact that I just accessed the site from my home computer probably has enough people checking into me just now.

The Stockdale Questions: About the Blogger

The late Admiral James Stockdale, one of the most highly-decorated officers in Navy history and a longtime POW in Vietnam, is unfortunately and unfairly remembered by most Americans for two sentences: while running for Vice President under Ross Perot in 1992, he began his appearance at the Vice Presidential debate with the lines: "Who am I? Why am I here?"

But Stockdale's questions are fair enough, especially for a new blogger. Who am I? Why am I here? Why is this the Middle East Institute's first blog?

Okay. I'm Michael Collins Dunn, PhD (MIchael or Mike will do), Editor of The Middle East Journal since 1998, married and the father of one daughter, and the first Middle East Institute blogger though I'd be delighted to see other MEI scholars and officials join me out here in the blogosphere.

This is not a polemical or partisan blog. I have my biases: sometimes they may show through, but I intend to try to offer intelligence analysis (and intelligent analysis) without heavy prejudgment, which is just another word for prejudice, after all. I have too many friends on all sides of all the various Middle Eastern disputes not to be an advocate for negotiated peace; I have no deep antipathies to any of the peoples, cultures, or nations of the region and considerable experience with most of them; my personal religious beliefs are private and compel no particular stance on any of the disputes in the region; and my politics (I'm a registered Whig) doesn't tell you very much either.

That brings us to who I am and what my standing is to blog here. Sometimes I've been asked to speak to interns at the Middle East Institute about my career path, and I always warn: "Don't try this at home." My doctoral dissertation was a study of Egypt in the period 750-868 AD, so I'm a "medievalist" by European standards, an Early Islamic historian by Middle Eastern perspective, except that since 1980 I've spent all or almost all my time dealing with the contemporary Middle East.My doctorate is in Middle Eastern history from Georgetown University. I taught for nine years or so as an adjunct at Georgetown, teaching both Islam in the theology department and (during Desert Storm), Middle Eastern military issues for the national security studies program there. I lived in Cairo twice: in 1972-1973 in the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad program and as a fellow of the American Research Center in Egypt in 1977-1978. I have visited most of the Arab world, from Morocco to Oman, and at one point was visiting Israel once or twice a year as well. I speak and read Arabic, and have a little bit of asking-directions-reading-roadsigns capability in Hebrew.

I also worked through much of the 1980s for a group of publications specializing in defense issues. I became something of an expert on the military industries of the Middle East (especially Israel and Egypt). In 1989 I started my own company, The International Estimate, Inc., which published a biweekly newsletter called The Estimate from 1989 to early 2007. It was always a small-circulation newsletter, but it had its followers. It ultimately died the fate of dead-tree newsletters generally: the Internet.

All of this combines to say that I've been a Middle East specialist since the early 1970s, and an Editor since 1980 (unless you count my High School Yearbook, which is how I got set on this career path). Along the way I've met a lot of interesting people. I also may be one of the few people who's sat in both Israeli and Egyptian tanks and also taught in a theology department.

By 1998, being one of the few people who had both an extensive experience running publications and academic street cred in the Middle East, I was asked to take over The Middle East Journal. I will, at some point, post or link to the little history of the Journal I wrote for our 60th anniversary; it's in our Winter 2007 issue.

I, like the Journal, am now past 60. We both are converting as quickly as possible to the digital age, even as dead-tree publications are dying around us. I hope this blog is part of that conversion.

I have some personal interests and they will doubtless affect my choices of posting topics. Egypt is my old home and most enduring interest: Misr Umm al-Dunya as the saying goes, "Egypt is the Mother of the World." Since Misr also means Cairo, the phrase is often applied to the city as well, and I share the view. I've spent a lot of time, as noted, on defense and military issues, have skated gingerly around the edges of the intelligence communities of the US and the Middle East (though never served in any) and therefore have some expertise there. I'm interested in both ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East, though not in a confrontational way. If I blog more about some of these things than, say, oil economics or the impact of the global economic crisis on Gulf sovereign funds, forgive me. I write what I know.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

More About the Blog

People who know blogging (meaning those whose blogs actually get read) say one should keep one's posts to readable length; yet the strength of what we do at MEI and the whole rationale behind this blog is that we're going to provide substance, background, and detail. So occasionally I'll do multiple-part postings. This is the beginning of a couple of posts about what we hope to do with this blog.

In my initial posting I explained a little bit about what we're doing here, but it seems appropriate (now that we're up and running a bit) to say more, and to introduce myself and, for those who got here somehow other than through the Middle East Institute website, MEI, and what this blog seeks to do.

First, why the blog? MEI has been thinking about a blog for some time. In fact, this address at Blogger was claimed back in 2006. Nobody followed through. The philosophy that I and MEI bring to this blog will be discussed in future posts and, I hope, evident from the product.

I'm an old newsletter editor and am therefore pretty good at quick turnaround, fast one-draft writing and concise analysis. I'm an old professor and have some skill at balance and academic objectivity. I'm an Editor who constantly has to deal with academic egos and somehow manage to steer a middle ground, most of the time. And I'm egotistical enough to think someone will read what I have to say, though I have something of a track record suggesting they might. I'll talk more about my background another time.

If you don't know MEI: The Middle East Institute was founded in 1946 by a group of diplomats and scholars to encourage better understanding of the Middle East in the US and of the US in the Middle East. Since January 1947 it has published The Middle East Journal, an interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed journal devoted to the modern Middle East. (Since 1980, it has limited main articles, though not book reviews, to the period since 1945.) Besides the Journal it has an active online publication program at its website, offers accredited language classes (Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish) and now area studies classes as well, holds an annual conference, other conferences throughout the year, and regular lunchtime speakers, book signings, etc. related to the region. MEI links are over there on the right sidebar.

The Institute has throughout its history not taken positions on policy issues but has encouraged a genuine forum with all sides represented. That, I hope, will characterize this blog as well. It would not be real blogging if I never expressed an opinion, but those opinions are not only not those of MEI (disclaimer's on this page), but also won't be polemic or predictable. Mostly I'll be filling in the background you need to make your own decision. (Forgive me if that sounds like Fox News's "we report, you decide." In my case, I mean it, and so does MEI.) At least that's the intention. The "Backgronder" on Egypt is an example of the kind of information I hope to provide. We'll also provide profiles of key figures, as well as interesting links.

As I've noted, to start with we'll have pretty unlimited commenting. If that gets abused, we may go to moderated comments or limiting comments to registered readers. We'll see.

A Note on Al-Hayat and Some Background

In my last post I quoted Juan Cole quoting Al-Hayat, and linked to the Al-Hayat website. After posting it occurred to me that this is an opportunity to do something I hope we will do regularly on this MEI blog: give the necessary background to those of you who may be new to the region or trying to learn more.

Obviously if someone quoted the Washington Post on something and then the Washington Times, the two papers' rather opposite political leanings would usually already be familiar to a US (or at least a Washington) reader. But Western newspapers, bloggers, and others regularly quote the Middle Eastern media without explaining the nature of the source, their political leanings, ownership, etc., which, obviously, are important in interpreting the content. I hope to fill in precisely that kind of background intelligence, when I can, in what we're trying to do here.

Al-Hayat ("Life" in Arabic) today is a London-based international Arab daily. It began life as a Beirut daily after World War II when it was founded by Kamel Mroue (pronounced Muh-ROE-wuh) , a Lebanese Shi'ite. Mroue was assassinated in 1966; the paper was run by his family until the Lebanese Civil War when it and its English sister-publication the Daily Star ceased publication. It was restarted in the 1980s by Kamel's son Jamil Mroue as an international Arab daily with satellite publication throughout the Arab world and in the West. It developed into one of the most intellectually challenging and politically diverse Arab dailies.

In 1990 the paper was purchased by Prince Khalid bin Sultan, son of the Saudi Defense Minister and best known in this country for commanding Saudi Forces in Desert Storm in 1991, and now Assistant Defense Minister for Military Affairs (translation: he runs the military). The purchase did not affect the overall editorial content of the paper although, of course, it doesn't generally criticize Saudi Arabia or praise the Kingdom's enemies. (It has also continued to have solid coverage of Lebanon, though the revived paper has been based in London since its reappearance.)

Al-Hayat's reporting is generally a lot more solid and a lot more reliable than many newspapers in the region, and is very professionally edited. It had at one time and may still have a Jerusalem bureau.

When I cite newspapers or other regional media in this blog, I hope to be able to occasionally offer this kind of introductory background.

A little personal full disclosure here since I've said positive things about the paper: back in the 1980s when Jamil Mroue was resurrecting Al-Hayat he also hoped to restart the Daily Star (though he didn't do so until the 90s I think). He offered me the job of Beirut City Editor. I didn't take it -- he made the offer just before the Marine Barracks bombing as I recall, or perhaps the US Embassy bombing. He didn't restart the Daily Star at that time, and Mroue no longer owns al-Hayat (though I think he still owns the Daily Star, whose website has apparently not been updated for two weeks, apparently due to some sort of legal action). Former MEI President Ned Walker wrote a column for a while for al-Hayat, and one or two of my pieces for the MEI website were picked up by the Daily Star, but I think any conflict of interest is fairly remote. The point is that al-Hayat is a highly respected paper, and that's not just my personal view.

Those of you who read Arabic certainly will already know al-Hayat, but for those who don't the Dar al-Hayat website does have an English language site. The Arabic site is here.

And yes, we'll have a links list and blogroll on this site soon, I hope.

Early Voting in Iraq

A quick update on my last post: Juan Cole, who's been blogging for a long time while I've just started, notes that al-Hayat has preliminary reports on the early voting results. Those of you who read Arabic can see the original al-Hayat story here. He notes that the sample is skewed since early voting was open to limited groups: he cites the police and the sick (by which I think he means hospital patients, since I've seen them noted as eligible); the Army and prisoners were apparently also eligible for early voting, according to the New York Times.

The problem, of course, is that not only are these highly skewed results (as Cole notes) because of the nature of the groups (the Army and police are clearly stakeholders in the present government; as for the prisoners, I have no idea where they would come down), but just as political polling doesn't work very well in countries where there is no long history of voting, there's really nothing to compare the results to. The 2005 elections were just too different: it was the height of the insurgency, and almost all the Sunni community and substantial numbers of poorer Shi'ites boycotted. (The electoral system has been revised as well.)

Still, these early returns suggest the parties already in power are doing well, which is hardly surprising given the role of patronage.

Iraq's Provincial Elections Under Way

Saturday, Iraq holds the long-delayed provincial elections which are, in many ways, a test of the country's relatively new-found stability. Most importantly, the skewed provincial councils produced by the 2005 elections, which were boycotted by most Sunni parties, key tribal groups and the urban supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, will be replaced by more representative bodies.

I'll comment at greater length once the results are known, but for background reading on the elections in the meantime, the International Crisis Group has a detailed survey (executive summary here) (full-length report in .pdf here). See also the page on the elections from the Education for Peace in Iraq Center.

Note that the provincial elections are occurring in only 14 of the 18 provinces: the Kurdish region and Ta'mim Province (Kirkuk) aren't involved.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Backgrounder: Egypt, Gaza and Omar Suleiman

One of our goals with this MEI Editor's Blog is to provide solid background for analysis of the Middle East; in the cacophany of polemical debate, it is easy sometimes to lose sight of the facts.

In all the reams of commentary about Israel's recent Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, only peripheral attention has often been paid to Egypt's difficult quandaries and efforts to maintain a ceasefire. About a year ago I wrote a commentary for the MEI webpage that touched on some of these issues, at the time of the breach in the Egyptian-Gaza border fence, but the situation has been exacerbated by the Israeli operation and the worsening situation on the ground. Many in the Arab world blame Egypt for not opening the border crossing at Rafah, while many in Israel blame Egypt for looking the other way as arms were smuggled into Gaza through a network of tunnels. The quandary faced by Egypt is a difficult one, since the Egyptian "street" is itself unhappy with the government's position. This is intended as an introduction to the background of the issue, and a look at the man who handles Egypt's security relations with both the Israelis and the Palestinians, Omar Suleiman. It's the first of a series of backgrounder postings I hope to do on this site.

Gaza and Egypt

Historically, Gaza has long had links with Egypt. It is the traditional gateway to Palestine from Egypt, as the Egyptian town of al-`Arish is the historical gateway to Egypt from Palestine. From 1948 to 1967, Gaza was administered by Egypt under the ceasefire agreements ending the Israeli War of Independence, and many Egyptian educational institutions founded branches in Gaza.

Despite the historic links, Egypt has never been comfortable with Gaza. The reasons are simple enough: there are 1.5 million people in Gaza's 350 square kilometers, versus perhaps half a million in the whole of Egypt's Sinai peninsula, with some 60,000 square kilometers. Egypt sees Gaza as a potential threat to the security of the Sinai, and there are suspicions that the terrorist bombings in the "Sinai riviera" resort towns of Sharm al-Sheikh in 2005 and Dhahab in 2006 were carried out by infiltrators from Gaza aiming at Israeli tourists.

Add to this the fact that Hamas's dominance in Gaza has never sat comfortably with the Egyptian government, since Hamas sprang from the Gaza Muslim Brotherhood, itself founded by the Egyptian branch of that group, which the government considers subversive. Leaving aside the judgment on the Egyptian Brotherhood, Hamas' interests in Gaza rarely coincide with Egypt's.

Israeli commentators and their allies sometimes blame Egypt for the arms smuggling that has certainly taken place into Gaza, and the network of tunnels is well known. There are no doubt solid grounds for criticism, and Egypt could probably do better, but it is important to recall that under the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, "Area C," the eastern Sinai, is demilitarized. In 2005, preparing to withdraw from Gaza, the Israeli Knesset amended the peace treaty to allow Egypt to station 750 border guards along the Egypt-Gaza border. Since those guards must sleep and have time off duty, perhaps a third of that number is available on any given watch. Although there are indications that Israel has tacitly allowed Egypt to further increase the numbers, the peace treaty itself limits the forces Cairo can deploy.

Nor can even an authoritarian state like Egypt completely ignore the public opinion of the Egyptian populace. When the barrier wall was breached in early 2008 and hundreds of thousands of Gazans crossed into Egypt, there was much popular support for keeping the crossings open. And during the long siege since Israel blocked most access to Gaza from the Israeli side, there has been growing sentiment in the Arab world for opening Rafah. The pressures are real and create a quandary for the Egyptian government, which fears the impact of an open Rafah crossing on the security of Sinai and perhaps Egypt proper.

Omar Suleiman

The man tasked with dealing with this Solomonic quandary is Lt. Gen. Omar ('Umar) Suleiman, head of Egyptian General Intelligence and Minister without Portfolio in the Egyptian Cabinet. Suleiman is rarely profiled by the Western media, though he is a key player in Israeli-Palestinian security issues. A week ago the Israeli daily Haaretz profiled him in the context of Gaza ceasefire negotiations, and occasionally there have been interviews or profiles elsewhere, but he has not a well-known figure. He gave a briefing here at MEI a while back, but it was off the record, and I respect that here.

The Haaretz article captures the main points about the man: he has been head of Egyptian General Intelligence since 1991, but only since he began to shuttle between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Hamas and Fatah, has he been publicly mentioned in the Egyptian media or had his photograph published.

Since President Husni Mubarak credits him with saving Mubarak's life during an assassination attempt in Addis Ababa in 1995 (Suleiman insisted on using an armored limousine), he has become a senior confidant of the President. He is sometimes mentioned as a possible successor to Mubarak if Gamal Mubarak does not succeed. (On the succession issue, see this piece at the MEI website.)

Appropriately for a intelligence professional, not a lot is known about his military career, as the gaps in his Wikipedia biography indicate; he fought in the 1967 and 1973 wars, but no one seems to know in what capacity. The Haaretz article quotes his Israeli intelligence interlocutors as being uncertain whether he started out in the artillery or another branch. He rose to head Military Intelligence and then, in 1991, became head of General Intelligence, the powerful civilian arm; he is believed to be the first man to hold both (sometimes rival) posts in succession. As a member of the Cabinet he holds a rank not held by intelligence chiefs since the Nasser era. And in a government in which the President and many other senior figures come from the Delta, he is from Qena in Upper Egypt, a traditionally neglected and underdeveloped part of the country (and, often, the subject of regional jokes in the rest of Egypt).

Intelligence Links

The nature of the intelligence field and the natural secrecy of Middle Eastern governments have combined to keep an air of mystery around the intelligence cooperation among governments in the region -- especially when cooperation with Israel is involved -- but it is clear that Egyptian Intelligence, and particularly Suleiman personally, has worked closely with Israel's intelligence services -- Mossad, the General Security Service or Shin Bet, and Military Intelligence -- as well as with the US CIA, DIA and other agencies and, in recent years, with the multiple intelligence services of the Palestinian Authority (which followed the Middle Eastern model of multiple, competing, and often overlapping security agencies). By default, Suleiman has also become the main intermediary between Fatah and Hamas, though he is known to be personally opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood at home and, by extension, no friend of Hamas in Gaza.

If the Gaza ceasefire holds, and that probably depends more on Israel and Hamas than on any Egyptian player, Suleiman's diplomacy will probably be one of the conduits through which deals are made and understandings reached. (It should be acknowledged that, whatever Suleiman's accomplishments in international diplomacy, many Egyptians fear Egyptian General Intelligence and its power at home, where it has wielded much influence since the Nasser era.)

George Mitchell: Deja Vu All Over Again

Today is George Mitchell's first day shuttling as the new Middle East envoy, and it must seem familiar to him: though a lot of commentary has noted his successes in Northern Ireland some years back, he also headed the Sharm al-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee set up in 2000 and 2001 to study and make recommendations following the collapse of Camp David II and the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada.

Reading the conclusions of the Mitchell group today is somewhat depressing to say the least: eight years later, almost every recommendation to both sides has yet to be implemented. Although his mission is a different one this time, since he is a representative of the US government rather than an international fact-finding group, he's likely to recognize most of the issues: settlements and security, refugees and terrorism and borders. He'll doubtless find better cell phone coverage and more Wi-Fi in the hotels, but pretty much the same problems he had to wrestle with in 2001. It doubtless seems, as Yogi Berra supposedly said, "like deja vu all over again."

Hisham Melhem's Obama Interview Coup

In trying to decide what my first substantive post should be, it seems to me that one of the prerogatives of blogging should be the ability to congratulate an old friend on a remarkable coup. I refer to the journalistic headline of the week: Al-Arabiya TV's interview with President Barack Obama, pulled off by Hisham Melhem, long one of the most accomplished Arab journalists in Washington.

Melhem talks about how they got the interview here; you can read the English-language transcript here; clearly Obama's intention of sending a signal to the Arab/Muslim world explained the timing, and the fact that al-Arabiya is seen in Washington as less "anti-American" than al-Jazeera may have helped them get the story. (I think that al-Jazeera has a generally bad rap among Americans who've never watched it, but that's my own view.)

Hisham and I go back to days studying at Georgetown in grad school a few more years ago than either of us likes to admit, and have known each other through varying identities in the Middle East-related community here for most of the time since. So let me congratulate him on a professional coup and also recommend anyone who hasn't read the interview go over to al-Arabiya and take a look. I plan to call attention to important posts on other websites frequently.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Watch this Space: Introducing the Blog

This will be the Middle East Institute's new Editor's blog, in which the Editor of The Middle East Journal -- me, Michael Dunn -- will be blogging on current Middle East affairs with an emphasis on factual background and understanding, not polemic.

Comments policy is going to start off pretty open and liberal -- though you may have to recognize characters in order to avoid robotic spam -- and we'll see what happens from there, given the tendency of the subject matter to generate flame wars. Other guest bloggers from the MEI community may participate, and perhaps someday we'll have a whole family of blogs.

We should get under way shortly, but don't be surprised if the look of the blog changes from time to time. We're likely to tinker with it for a while, but I sense we want to get it up and running and fix the glitches later.

We're beginning on Blogger, but will move it to our new integrated website when ready. Meanwhile you'll be able (at least by the time anyone knows this page is here) to get here through a link on our current website. If you like what you see here, tell your friends. If you don't, tell me.