A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Netanyahu's Cabinet Needs an Extra Table

The new Israeli Cabinet has 30 ministers and seven or eight deputy ministers and will need an extra Cabinet table as the old one only seats 27. Ha'aretz, no friend of Likud, in the article just linked to, notes that a Likud deputy in the last Knesset called any Cabinet of more than 18 ministers "a waste of public money."

Ha'aretz also reports with some glee that the Cabinet may not be sworn in until after midnight Israel time, so it could be an April Fool's Cabinet.

The problem was mentioned here earlier. By the time Binyamin Netanyahu had handed out all the portfolios demanded by Avigdor Lieberman, Ehud Barak, and Shas, there wasn't a lot left to go around for his own Likud. Ministries have been subdivided to create new portfolios, and there are several ministers without portfolio. Israel is facing the same economic constraints as the rest of the world, but this is not an austerity Cabinet.

Tzipi Livni's first effort on the floor of the Knesset as Leader of the Opposition is on the case:
"No system of government has ever forced a leader, if he is indeed a leader and not a politician, to buy his rule with such an outrageous price and use taxpayers' money to pay so much for such little support; and all this whilst Israel is facing such a profound financial and social crisis."
On the pro-Netanyahu side of the newspaper fence, The Jerusalem Post is noting that three members of the new Cabinet, Netanyahu himself, Ehud Barak (Defense Minister), and Moshe Ya'alon (former IDF Chief of Staff, now Minister of Strategic Affairs), all are products of the IDF's elite recon force Sayeret Matkal. Barak and Ya'alon both commanded it, as did Netanyahu's late brother Yonathan, killed at Entebbe in 1976.

The prospect of Avigdor Lieberman as Foreign Minister remains hard to contemplate. It will be interesting to see how he handles the job. Diplomacy has never been his strong suit.

Kadima as leader of the opposition will be something new, though; the party was created by Ariel Sharon from parties already in power, and Tzipi Livni won good marks for her role as Foreign Minister and, in the campaign, for coming from behind to eke out one seat more than Likud in the Knesset, though she didn't have the allies to form a government. And unlike Barak, she had the fortitude to insist Kadima would do better in opposition than in a rotational unity government. As leader of the opposition she will have an opportunity to remain on a world and national stage while not being linked to the policies of the new government. She seems to have come out swinging (quote above).

Baghdad Fighting Prompts Arab Summit to Avoid Iraq

Iraq had been hoping that Baghdad would be the site of the next Arab Summit, but the outbreak of fighting between the primarily Shi‘ite government forces and the Sunni Awakening (Sahwa) councils has apparently persuaded the Arab League to choose Libya as the venue instead. The fighting is complicated and somewhat dangerous, since other Awakening Council leaders are threatening to break with the government unless ‘Adil al-Mashhadani, who was arrested last week, precipitating the fighting, is released. Since the success of the "surge" in pacifying Baghdad and several Sunni provinces was largely accomplisahed through the Awakening Councils, the continued stability of the country could be in jeopardy if the present clashes spread.

Other reports say that Nuri al-Maliki has asked that Baghdad host the 2011 summit, since the 2010 summit is going to Libya instead.

In this context, Juan Cole today notes the fact that many Sunni Arab states are uncomfortable with the Shi‘ite-dominated government in Baghdad. That is certainly a consideration; Maliki is also rather too close to the Iranians for Saudi tastes. And, of course, there is the awkward fact that meeting in Baghdad while American troops are still in the country would leave the League open to charges that it was tacitly cooperating with occupation. Nevertheless, the unfortunate coincidence of the clashes with Awakening and the Doha Summit gave added excuse for denying the next Summit to Baghdad. The Al-Zaman story linked above also notes that the Saudi King declined to meet with Maliki in Doha.

Given Qadhafi's outburst against King ‘Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the choice of Libya may seem a bit surprising as well, but Maliki's hopes for hosting the 2010 Summit were certainly undermined by the renewed violence.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Assessing Doha

As near as I can tell from the early reports, about the only thing the Arab Summit agreed on was that they don't approve of the International Criminal Court warrant against ‘Umar al-Bashir. The President of the largest Arab country pointedly stayed away, the scene-stealing Brother Leader Qadhafi did his trademark scene-stealing, and some lip service was paid to the Arab peace initiative but without any strong new reaffirmation of it. At a time when a hard-line government is about to take power in Israel, this might have been a real opportunity to promote the initiative, but instead the usual inter-Arab quarrels (and the Arab League's rule requiring unanimity for any resolution), tended to produce a fizzle. The unanimity rule, which makes only the most anodyne resolutions possible — except, ironically, the agreement to back Bashir, whom the rest of the world wants to put on trial — is not particularly popular since it makes the Arab League almost useless, but to change it would require (of course) unanimity. In retrospect it is almost more surprising that the Arab League peace initiative was crafted in the first place, but it would have been refreshing to see it enthusiastically endorsed by the Doha Summit. The failure of Doha to bring the so-called moderates together with the so-called hardliners (or even to persuade Mubarak to show up) probably bodes ill for the soon-to-revive Palestinian unity talks. A rightist Israeli government, feuding Palestinian factions and a divided Arab world do not make for optimism, at least in the short term. I will be delighted to be proven wrong.

Doha: Qadhafi Does his Qadhafi Thing

The Doha Summit was already going to be interesting because of buzz about who was coming (‘Umar al-Bashir showed up) and who wasn't (Husni Mubarak was boycotting), but then there is always the perennial question of Arab summits: what will Qadhafi do?

Mu‘ammar al-Qadhafi is known for his tirades at summits, but for this one he seems to have been in especially classic form, denouncing the Saudi King and, when the Qataris cut his microphone, proclaiming that he was "the dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of Muslims." I wonder if the other African states were aware that giving him a one-year chairmanship of the African Union made him the King of Kings of Africa? (Hmm: this AFP story says he was given the title by "African tribal dignitaries," whatever that means.) I don't recall hearing him claim to be "Imam of the Muslims" before. I guess we have to give him "dean of the Arab rulers," since he's been in power since 1969, though I thought he had previously argued that he wasn't a "ruler" but simply a "Guide" of the Revolution who held no official position.

He then stormed out and visited a museum. The opening session of the Doha Summit has not been the display of unity the Qataris hoped for; perhaps things will improve. The Egyptian absence and the fact that today's official Egyptian papers are virtually ignoring the summit — Al-Ahram's lead story is Mubarak visiting an agricultural development project — underscores the longstanding feud between Egypt and Qatar. [NOTE: That story is no longer at the coded link: I assume when the new day's edition goes up, the links change.]

LATER: The BBC now says that reports Qadhafi "stormed out" were incorrect, but other reports say he went to the Islamic Museum instead. At any event he made a scene of some sort.

THE TEXT: In case anyone wondered if the reporting of his words was accurate, here's an English dispatch from the official Jamhiriyya News Agency, with (presumably official) text. The "standing ovation" was not, however, mentioned in other accounts.

Weekend Gleanings

As usual, I've dedicated my weekend to family, but before I start my own commentaries on the week, I'd like to refer you to a couple of useful reads over the weekend from other sources:

  • The Doha Summit. It's started now, and one of the oldest hands at Mideast blogging, Marc Lynch, in his Foreign Policy blog, has offered "A User's Guide to the Doha Summit." It is exactly that, and a good introduction. I'll offer commentary as the results become obvious.
  • Prince Nayef Next in Line of Succession? Saudi King ‘Abdullah, before leaving for Doha, and faced with the fact that the Heir Apparent, Prince Sultan, is in the hospital recovering from surgery and reported to be in poor shape, named his half brother (full brother to Sultan and the late King Fahd) Prince Nayef as Second Deputy Prime Minister. That does not officially put him next in line to the throne (since there's a new process for officially naming heirs), but it traditionally puts him there. Nayef is not terribly popular in the West: he was a strong denier of the 9/11 Saudi link for a long time and a hardliner domestically as Interior Minister. But the fact that the next in line after Sultan has been left up in the air even as Sultan is indisposed seems to have made it necessary to identify someone as, at least, the putative next in line. This Financial Times article plays the story straight. But this is Saudi Arabia, and like the old Soviet Union watchers, the Kingdom-watchers love to speculate about what is really going on. This leads to lots of rumors based on what somebody heard about the real intrigues within the Royal Family; former Washington Post correspondent Tom Lippman, a colleague of mine at MEI, has often noted that these rumors need to be dismissed, and other old Saudi hands I know agree: whoever is talking doesn't know what's going on; those who do don't talk. But if you want the conspiracy theory, Britain's The Independent has one ready for you, complete with the fact that no one has allegedly seen Prince Bandar in weeks. (The cynic in me wonders if they've looked in Aspen.) I really doubt that this is anything more than it appears on the surface: ‘Abdullah is leaving the Kingdom; his heir is in the hospital and ailing; he needs some sign of continuity. I could be wrong, but I sure wouldn't bet on The Independent's interpretation. The Kingdom doesn't work that way.
  • UPDATE: On the Saudi situation, Gregory Gause posts at Marc Lynch's Foreign Policy site, saying "Nobody Knows What it Means." Greg Gause is a very well-informed Gulf watcher, and he knows better than to buy every rumor floated by the press. The succession is obviously important, but reading the tea-leaves is not so easy.
  • UPDATE II: Simon Henderson at the Washington Institute offers his take.
I refer you to these for reading until I'm able to offer some comments of my own later today.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Al-Shuruq's Big Story: A New Paper Scores Big

The fact that a relatively new independent Egyptian paper broke the story of the Sudan raid (though identifying the attackers as American rather than Israeli) has drawn international attention to the newspaper Al-Shuruq (the Sunrise). And the newspaper itself is tickled pink about being quoted by The New York Times and others, and is bragging about it, justifiably.

This was a new paper to me, and in fact today's edition is Issue 55, so it's only a couple of months old. As can be seen from the Adobe Acrobat versions of its hard-copy pages, it's slick, has a color front page, and if you read Arabic, is obviously a serious paper. For more information about the paper's background, here's a post by The Arabist from today, which gives some background. It still doesn't have an entry on Wikipedia's "Newspapers in Egypt" category, but I suspect will get one now. The paper's main website page is here, for HTML, and the link for the .pdf version was given above.

UPDATE: As always, I learn from my readers. A commenter draws my attention to a post here, which includes the following footnote back on March 11:
* This is a new newspaper, available at www.shorouqnews.com, launched last month, by an Egyptian corporate group that includes the venerable publishing house Dar Al-Shorouq (original publisher of the novels of Naguib Mahfouz among other things), so it is not a fly-by-night. Judgments about how its place in the Egyptian establishment might be reflected in its news will have to come later. posted by badger at 6:51 PM

Thanks for the additional information, which I did not know. Egyptian newspapers were, for a long time, dominated by the government-owned press, nationalized under Nasser; in the Sadat era some opposition papers appeared, but these were usually the official publications of the opposition political parties. Most were weeklies, but Al-Wafd (its website is now down) managed to publish daily. The Socialist Labor Party paper Al-Sha‘b managed to be taken over, like the party itself, by the Muslim Brotherhood. These papers were rarely available outside central Cairo, being dependent on the government papers for printing presses. They were on the one hand often wild and unreliable, and on the other, easily intimidated. They could criticize the "government" in the sense of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, but the President, his family, the Army and the Security Services were off limits. Some of this still applies to the newer independent papers, as seen in the recent ban on any reporting of Army-police clashes.

In the past few years, with the growth of wealthy investors in Egypt, independent newspapers have proliferated. The big government dailies, Al-Ahram and the separate publishing houses of Akhbar al-Yom and Al-Gumhuriyya (once edited by Anwar Sadat!) roughly highbrow, middlebrow, and popular respectively, have been challenged by new independently-owned papers. The feisty Al-Dustur is a strong critic of the government though not the mouthpiece of a specific party; its Editor, Ibrahim ‘Isa, has been in trouble with the security services on more than one occasion. Less confrontational is Al-Masry al-Youm (the Editor in me insists on Al-Misri al-Yawm, but that isn't their preferred spelling), which has an online English selection of key articles, though often not felicitously translated. It is an up-market paper clearly aimed at the same elite readership as Al-Ahram. And, as I noted earlier this month, it recently got its own printing presses, making it more independent of the government media. Now, Al-Shuruq seems to be challenging the same market. And they have suddenly gotten a lot of attention by breaking a big story.

The big government papers are loss-leaders, sclerotic in coverage and still hampered by a reluctance to criticize the government. The arrival of new, upmarket, elite papers that are independently owned is interesting, but comes at a time when print journalism is in trouble worldwide. And as I noted after the Army-police troubles, newer technologies are harder to regulate than traditional newspapers. Still, both Al-Masry al-Youm and now, Al-Shuruq seem to be showing some promise at a time when Al-Ahram is trying to rein in its underpaid staff's widespread freelancing.

So congratulations to Al-Shuruq on making a splash internationally when they're only up to Issue 55.

Jordanians, Syrians among Candidates for MB Supreme Guide?

A follow-up story in today's Al-Masry al-Youm (Arabic version here)(English version here) to the announcement that non-Egyptians would be considered in choosing the Muslim Brotherhood's next Supreme Guide: according to this story, nine candidates are being considered: five Egyptians, two Jordanians, and two Syrians. (I give both the Arabic and English versions because the paper's English-language translations are sometimes a bit rough.) The five Egyptians are named as the First and Second Deputy Supreme Guides and the Secretary-General, Head of the Political Bureau, and a member of the Guidance Council. The second Deputy Supreme Guide is in prison, which may be an obstacle.

I think the announcement that Jordanians and Syrians are under consideration may in part be an attempt to emphasize the international nature of the movement and to encourage those branches of the Brotherhood (especially the Syrian one, which is suppressed). If elections are held for the office as promised, Egyptian members would most likely support one of the Egyptian candidates.

There is another pubic relations aspect to all this: by emphasizing the existence of multiple candidates and the intention to hold elections for the office, the Brotherhood emphasizes its own internal democratic processes in contrast to those of the state, where the 2005 Presidential elections were nominally competitive but in fact there was never a real question about the winner.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Plot Thickens

Tomorrow's Haaretz article adds more to the Sudan story: the arms are said to have originated in Iran, and a Sudanese official is quoted as saying there were two strikes, the other taking out a ship carrying Iranian arms. In this context Olmert's remarks that no place is outside Israel's reach takes on a subtler meaning as a direct notice to Iran that they are vulnerable. Whatever turns out to have happened in Sudan, it may have Iranian resonances, or is at least so being portrayed by Israel.

And this Ha'aretz story in which retired military officials analyze the implications of the strike pretty much discards any pretense that this was not an Israeli operation. The Israeli media seems to be celebrating rather than denying.

More tomorrow.

A Non-Egyptian Supreme Guide for the Brotherhood?

There's a story in Al-Masry al-Youm today that says that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has announced that the Supreme Guide, Mahdi ‘Akef, plans to retire soon and that his successor will be elected, and candidates might include members of the Brotherhood from abroad. (An English version of the article may be found here.)The Egyptian Brotherhood has always been led by an Egyptian, and it isn't completely clear if the idea here is to throw it open to all nationalities, or to Egyptian Brothers living outside Egypt, but it would be a first in either case.

‘Akef is eligible for another term and may change his mind, but choosing a Supreme Guide from outside Egypt would seem to give the government ammunition to use against the Brotherhood's ever being allowed to function as a normal political party.

UPDATE: Marc Lynch picked up on the same story. Read his comments as well. He has a picture of himself with ‘Akef under the headline "The Next Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood." Is Prof. Lynch hinting he's a candidate?

The Sudan Convoy Strike Story

I considered posting on this yesterday, but the story seemed wild and unsourced. Now everybody seems to be piling on: Who attacked a convoy in Sudan, apparently carrying arms to Gaza during the Israeli Gaza operation?

On Tuesday, the new Egyptian independent newspaper Al-Shuruq carried a story that American aircraft had attacked an arms convoy northwest of Port Sudan, killing 39 people, and destroying 17 trucks. The convoy was supposedly carrying arms to Hamas in Gaza. To see the original article in Arabic go to this site and download the March 24 issue (very large Acrobat file; needs to be downloaded and doesn't seem to let me link directly). A short English summary is here. The story sounded rather wild and, like The Arabist at the second link, I didn't particularly buy it. If the US wanted to take out a convoy of trucks in Sudan, I think we'd have used Predators or helicopters operating off ships in the Red Sea; I don't see us using combat aircraft from a carrier or from Djibouti. I know we may be operating from Djibouti from French bases against pirates in the Red Sea (I know we may be, I don't know that we are), but this just didn't sound right. In my old newsletter The Estimate I had a column called "Coffeehouse Gossip" devoted to just this kind of unsourced wild stories. I don't have a similar function here yet, but may need one. Anyway, I initially left this unsourced story alone.

Then a Sudanese official — the Minister of State for Highways — (huh?: since when does he do international diplomatically sensitive stuff?) came out yesterday and announced that "A major power bombed small trucks carrying arms – burning all of them. It killed Sudanese, Eritreans, and Ethiopians and injured others."

Then the story took a new turn when the US network CBS (a lot more credible source than some of those in play up to then) reported, via its verteran (and well-informed) defense correspondent David Martin that an unnamed US official says it was an Israeli operation, in the context of an international effort to block arms smuggling into Gaza.

This version is a lot more credible I think. The US might operate from the French airbase in Djibouti, but if we have ground attack aircraft based in Djibouti (as opposed to anti-piracy forces) I'm not sure we'd want to reveal their presence with a strike on Sudan.

An Israeli strike makes more sense. Operating from their bases in the southern Negev this wouldn't be much more of a stretch than the attack on the Syrian suspected reactor site last year; I haven't calculated the range but even if they needed droptanks (used in the Syrian strike) or inflight refueling, they've got that capability and could operate over the Red Sea without entering any Arab airspace.

The Sudanese official's remarks raise several questions in my mind:
  1. The Minister of State for Highways? He's the one to voice international protests?
  2. "Sudanese, Ethiopians, and Eritreans." Ethiopia and Eritrea must have really patched up their deadly territorial quarrels when I wasn't looking, or we're talking about radical Islamist groups that transcend borders.
  3. The newspaper and Sudanese Minister's reports don't seem to specify when this happened, but the CBS report puts it in January during Operation Cast Lead. Why, then, are we just hearing about it now? Could this relate to — surely not? — ‘Umar al-Bashir's problems with the International Criminal Court? Suddenly what Sudan found an embarrassing breach of its sovereignty may help gain it sympathy, especially if it blames the US?
Another point worth making: the Israeli media is playing this as an Israeli Air Force (IAF) operation: here are the reports from Haaretz, the version from The Jerusalem Post, and from the English news site of the country's biggest paper, Yediot Aharanot. All are quoting the CBS report, but this is classic Israeli newspaper evasion of military censorship: quote an overseas report about what Israel has done without citing any Israeli sources or directly asserting that the story is true. The very fact that they all report it as an IAF operation without much sign of doubt or denial by official sources suggests to most readers — certainly Israeli readers who know the code of getting around censorship — that the story is in fact true.

There are, however, some curious things about this story. If the convoy was passing through the coastal region of Sudan, northwest of Port Sudan, the assumption is that it would be proceeding through Egyptian territory and then Sinai, before infiltrating the alleged armaments into Gaza. Given the fact that Israel and Egypt have diplomatic relations, fairly close intelligence ties via Omar Suleiman and that Egypt is not eager to see Hamas strengthened as they see it as a domestic threat in Egypt, why not simply wait until the convoy was in Egypt, and then let the Egyptians know in no uncertain terms that you knew it was there and saw it as a threat to the peace? Assuming the Egyptian government was unaware of the shipment (and if they were aware, there's a whole differeent issue at stake), why not let them take care of it? On the other hand, perhaps they planned to ship the arms by sea to some clandestine spot in the Sinai. But if it was going to go by sea, why not strike it at sea? The clear violation of Sudanese sovereignty suggests one of two things: whoever (US or Israel) carried out the strike wanted to do it on Sudanese soil. Port Sudan is a long way from Gaza. But it does send a message.

I'm not sure what happened, but there are enough matches between the official and unofficial versions (39 dead, 17 trucks destroyed) that I'm inclined to assume the event happened, regardless of who the aircraft belonged to, and that the whole incident will never be fully understood.

I'll update as more leaks, but this looks like an Israeli operation, not an American one, though I wouldn't rule out the US being involved in satellite intelligence (I'm not sure Israel's recon satellites reach to Sudan) and other cooperation.

UPDATE: Reuters says the Sudanese Foreign Minister knows nothing about an airstrike. I guess he hasn't talked to the Minister of State for Highways. The plot doesn't exactly thicken, but it doesn't clarify much either.

UPDATE II: In this story, Olmert comes pretty close to admitting it was Israel, and a few more details are added. Two aircraft involved, one surviving witness, which makes the nationality of the aircraft even more uncertain.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Now, Bashir Goes to Cairo

Sudan's ‘Umar al-Bashir, after his Monday quick trip to Eritrea, has now gone to Cairo, holding talks with Husni Mubarak at Cairo airport. These are obviously not so much diplomatic journeys as symbols of defiance, and if he does go the Doha Summit next week that will be another. It also serves to diminish the power olf the International Criminal Court indictment by demonstrating that neither Arab nor African governments will touch him when he visits.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Claim of Secret US-Iranian Meetings?

Are US and Iranian diplomats meeting secretly in Beirut? Make up your own mind: the original Arabic version (at least online) is no more informative than this Naharnet English summary. This kind of story is typical of certain Arab media and it may be nothing more than a coffeehouse rumor. But I thought I'd note it, given the interplay between Washington and Tehran on and since Nowruz.

Morocco Cracks Down on Shi‘ism: Link to Break in Ties with Iran?

Not long ago I noted that Morocco's break in diplomatic ties with Iran came after Iran and Bahrain had patched up their quarrel, and that Morocco seemed to go out of its way to pick the fight. Perhaps it is explained by this recent crackdown on Shi‘ism in Morocco, as reported by AFP. Since Morocco has no indigenous Shi‘ite population it seems worried about possible proselytization by Iranians or (in the case of the Iraqi school mentioned in the article) Iraqi Shi‘ites. (The crackdown is also focused on gays, according to the article, who often tend to be targeted when Arab regimes are trying to stress their Islamic bona fides.) The Moroccan King, after all, is still called Amir al-Mu'minin, Commander of the Faithful, a traditional title of the Caliphate, and often portrayed in traditional dress.

And while the story is probably unrelated, some Saudi Shi‘ites are having a bad week as well.

Now Likud is Unhappy with Netanyahu

This story offers the flipside of the Barak-Netanyahu deal: Netanyahu put so much on the table to win over Labor that there isn't much left for Likud, and the party (most of whom don't seem to be cited by name in this Ha'aretz story) is noting that even key Likud figures may not get Cabinet posts because so few have not been promised to other parties.

There's another interesting possibility: of Labor's 13 Members of the Knesset (MKs), seven opposed entering the coalition. If they were all to bolt, Barak would have only six MKs left, including himself, and has been promised five ministerial positions and two deputy ministers: he could end up not having enough MKs to fill the slots, while Likud doesn't have enough portfolios to reward its stalwart leading figures.

My instincts — and I've watched Israeli politics pretty closely for years — suggest that this isn't a very viable coalition. But as out of place as Labor may seem in present company to Westerners focused on the peace process, in Israeli domestic terms Labor, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu are all secularist parties (YB extravagantly so) and are more likely to quarrel with Shas over religious/secular issues than with each other over peace (unless there is some real breakthrough on the peace front, which will be difficult unless there is a unified Palestinian leadership). And if some Labor MKs refuse to support the coalition, the majority starts to erode very quickly.

Labor Backs Barak Joining Netanyahu

Ehud Barak has won his gamble, with the Labor Central Committee voting 680 to 507 to approve joining in coalition with Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas. It's perhaps too early to tell if some of those Knesset members who strenuously opposed entering the coalition will bolt Labor or refuse to serve in the Cabinet.

One of the selling points was presumably the rather generous benefits offered by Bibi Netanyahu in the agreement hammered out between him and Barak just this morning: five Cabinet positions and two deputy minister posts will go to Labor, which has only 13 seats in the Knesset. Barak will stay at Defense, and Labor will also get the influential Trade and Industry Ministry along with some lesser portfolios.

Labor also extracted an agreement to work towards an economic recovery plan in coordination with the Histadrut, the big (Labor-led) trade union body.

Netanyahu put a lot on the table to bring Labor in, which may be a hopeful sign: it suggests he wanted to avoid an all-right-wing coalition, which could make dealings with the West more difficult. Barak also made sure that the Defense Minister will be involved in all major peace and security related diplomatic efforts, which will blunt somewhat the presence of Avigdor Lieberman in the Foreign Ministry.

If no other parties join the coalition, and no one bolts from Labor as a result of Barak joining it, Netanyahu will now have a majority of 66, or five more than he needs to govern. The ultra-secularist Lieberman and the ultra-religious Shas, though both of one mind on peace and settlements, will not play well together on issues such as conversion and military service for yeshiva students; Labor and Lieberman will agree on very little in terms of the peace process; it will be a fractious Cabinet in many ways. Netanyahu in his previous Prime Ministership (1996-1999) was not particularly skillful at keeping his coalition in line, but he has had a decade to mature and may be better this time.

Labor was deeply divided on this issue; Barak has won his battle but made some enemies in the process. It may not be the Israeli government many expected, but it could be fascinating to watch.

Bashir's Trip to Eritrea

Sudanese President 'Umar al-Bashir's one-day trip to Eritrea would normally be a yawn-inducing affair, but it is his first trip outside Sudan since the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest, and thus an act of defiance.

It also focuses attention on the question of whether he will go to Doha March 30 for the Arab Summit there. He has previously indicated that he would, but then a senior council of Sudanese 'ulama issued a ruling saying that he should not leave the country with the indictment against him. The trip to Asmara would seem to indicate that he doesn't intend to be bound by the clerical ruling, but it still could give him cover if he thinks Doha might be too provocative a venue for him to show up.

I'm waiting for the Labor Party vote before posting more today.

Monday, March 23, 2009

CSIS on Possible Israeli Strike on Iran

This report from CSIS by Abdullah Toukan and Anthony Cordesman on a possible Israeli nuclear strike against Iran has been out for a week but I'm just getting to it. It has Tony Cordesman's signature comprehensiveness — maps, charts, tables, quantification galore — and includes estimates of payloads, routes, the use of aircraft versus the use of ballistic missiles, etc. It's the fullest analysis I've seen of the difficulties involved if Israel were to try to hit the Iranian nuclear sites. It concludes what most such analyses have concluded: such an operation would entail great difficulties and open up many possible avenues for Iranian retaliation.

With the change of Administrations in Washington, the likelihood of a US strike at Iran seems much reduced, but with a right-wing government coming into power in Israel, pressures for a unilateral strike may intensify.

I think comparisons to Israel's 1981 Osirak raid are misleading. Osirak was Iraq's only nuclear site at the time, and was poorly defended. Iran has several sites (possibly some not yet discovered), they have SAM coverage, are at the maximum range of Israeli aircraft (unless ballistic missiles are used), and a release of radiation near major cities such as Esfahan could create human and environmental chaos. Not only could Iran strike back directly, but it could also disrupt shipping in the Gulf and otherwise wreak havoc.

And I think it's also important to remember that, as we finally learned in 1991 when the UN inspectors went into Iraq, the Osirak raid actually helped speed up Iraq's weapons program. I think the same thing would happen in Iran: any lingering doubts about weaponization would be removed.

The CSIS report deserves a wide readership.

The Fate of Israel's Labor Party

There's a rather grim assessment of the future of the Israeli Labor Party in The The Jerusalem Post. The Post is no friend of Labor, but the party does seem deeply divided over Ehud Barak's eagerness to join a coalition with Likud. As I've said before, it's hard to know what Barak hopes to gain for Labor, since it would not be a true unity government without Kadima, the largest party in the Knesset. Barak would hold on to the Defense Ministry, but at the cost of splitting the party. Tomorrow will be the party vote. As the linked article notes, the party could split regardless of how the vote goes. But if Barak loses the vote and seeks to join Netanyahu with only two or three supporters, would that give Netanyahu enough support to leave Barak in the Defense Ministry, traditionally one of the three or four key positions? One could write a scenario where Netanyahu says no thanks. He's going to have enough trouble trying to keep Avigdor Lieberman and the religious parties in line, given Lieberman's support of civil marriage and other ideas taboo to the religious.

Forty years ago, Labor appeared to be the permanent governing party of Israel. Today it seems a mere shadow. Partly that is due to Israeli voters moving to the right, but partly it's of Labor's own making. It hasn't had a Prime Minister since Barak's fall, and now it's only the fourth largest party.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Debate Continues

Yesterday I mentioned the long comments thread at Arabic Media Shack dealing with the recent spate of articles about Cairo bars. The debate has continued, and I've put my two piastres in, if you scroll down far enough, though I don't say anything I didn't already say here.

Kuwaiti Caucus-Race?

I posted already about the dissolution of the Kuwaiti Parliament. It's clear enough now: The Amir is not amused.

First, let me say that I agree with the Amir to some extent, though some of what I'm about to say criticizes him as well as Parliament. The whole pariamentary procedure dance is an indulgence in the present economic crisis, wavering oil prices, and when you are Kuwait, with Iraq (of recent unhappy memory) and Iran as big neighbors, Saudi Arabia looking over your shoulder and the US Army sitting on your territory, you are not completely free to indulge your preferences.

The Kuwaiti Parliament has no formal political parties, but is made up of clear-cut blocs of Arab nationalists, Amir's men, tribal representatives, Sunni Islamists, Shi'ite Islamists, and secular Shi'ites. It's got a lot of folks with grievances, and that's good; there's no easy outlet when their grievances involve disagreements with the ruling family, however.

The constitutional dance of the past three years is not helping convince the Arab world of the wisdom of Parliamentary democracy. This will be the third Parliamentary election in as many years. There have been several Cabinet reshuffles in between, but the fundamental issue remains a fundamental one: can Parliament interrogate the Prime Minister?

In a Westminster system, of course. In the American system, Congress and the President are separate entities and while Executive Branch officers testify before Congress, the President is not interrogatable (though Thomas Jefferson did once go up to the Hill). The Kuwaiti system has a glitch: constitutionally, Parliament can interrogate Cabinet officials. The Prime Minister is a Cabinet official. Parliament cannot interrogate the Ruling Family, of course, since it rules by their toleration. Until recently, the Prime Minister was also the Crown Prince. That raised issues, and today the Prime Minister is a mere nephew of the Amir, and not the Crown Prince. But he is still a Royal. You begin to see the problem.

The Amir was pretty disdainful of the present Parliament, but I don't know if that is the best way to get a more tractable body. Quote: "Parliament has rights, but they come with responsibilities. Democracy is a tool, not a goal in itself."

Good luck with that. I think King Charles I of England, Louis XVI of France and Nicholas II of Russia had some similar attitudes towards their Parliament/Estates General/Duma. If the new Parliament looks a lot like the old, what will he do then? Kuwait deserves great credit for having a functioning Parliament, a genuine separation of powers (even if the Amir is still supreme and checks and balances are not in place), and for only occasionally suspending the system.

But this whole, recurring clash between the Government and the Parliament is getting monotonous. Someone has to cut the Gordian knot and decide whether the Prime Minister and other Cabinet Royals are answerable to Parliament, or not. Perhaps it's even time to have fewer Royals in the Cabinet? For some reason it reminds me of the "Caucus-Race" in Alice in Wonderland (and of course as its name implies, Lewis Carroll was mocking British Parliamentary politics):

What IS a Caucus-race?' said Alice; not that she wanted much to know, but the Dodo had paused as if it thought that SOMEBODY ought to speak, and no one else seemed inclined to say anything.

"Why,"' said the Dodo, "the best way to explain it is to do it." (And, as you might like to try the thing yourself, some winter day, I will tell you how the Dodo managed it.)

First it marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, ("the exact shape doesn't matter," it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no "One, two, three, and away,'" but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out "The race is over!" and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, "But who has won?"

This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, "EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes."

The problem here, of course, is that no one has a prize. I really do admire the Kuwaitis for having the longest lasting (with gaps) parliamentary electoral system in the Gulf, and one that is genuinely, if imperfectly, reflective of public opinion. But how the Parliament and the monarchy relate is still a big issue; Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad was a long-serving diplomat before he became Amir, and perhaps he will be wiser than some of his predecessors. But perhaps, too, the system needs to be changed: liberalized to permit, for example, a non-Royal Prime Minister, genuinely responsible to Parliament? Or to simply spell out what can, and what cannot, be demanded of a Prime Minister? The Constitution does not precisely match the actual implementation of power.

And of course, neither I nor any other American can tell the Kuwaitis how to run their system. But I do hope the Kuwaitis will look at other historical models if their system continues to freeze up with such regularity. They are in way too dangerous a neighborhood to pursue a Belgian degree of politifcal paralysis. (Okay, I'll get complaints from Belgians, but I hope the point is clear.)

Two More Weeks

And, as expected, Netanyahu has asked for the additional two weeks. It means he's serious about the move to bring Ehud Barak and Labor into the coalition. Let's see what happens.

Using Nowruz as an Opening

Both US President Obama and, separately, Israeli President Shimon Peres have sent Nowruz greetings to Iran in efforts to thaw the chill: Peres actually speaking in Persian apparently, Obama relying on subtitles. I doubt that it will have much effect (especially Peres), but it's an improvement over confrontrational threats, and at least a reminder that someone in the West noticed it was Nowruz.

Nowruz Mobarak!

Nowruz Mobarak!

I've already established the precedent of marking holidays, greeting my Muslim readers on Mawlid al-Nabi and my Jewish readers on Purim, so I might as well stay consistent and wish a happy Nowruz to every reader who celebrates the ancient Persian New Year.

It's a pretty broad brush: Iranians, of course, and Kurds, Afghans, many Turks, a lot of other folks where greater Persian civilization once held sway up into Central Asia, and members of a number of religions — Iranians of all varieties, but also Parsees (Zoroastrians) everywhere (who invented the holiday), Baha'is, Syrian ‘Alawites, Turkish Alevis, Albanians of the Bektashi Sufi order (thank you, Wikipedia, I didn't know about that one) — and doubtless many I'm leaving out.

Nowruz is, of course, simply the vernal equinox celebrated as the new year. Until the 18th century many British legal documents considered March 25 (roughly, before the shift to Gregorian, the vernal equinox) as the new year. There's something to be said for starting your year in the spring, when buds are budding and flowers are coming up, instead of in the dead of winter, as Western calendars now do, or the fall (Rosh Hashonah, Coptic New Year), or moving around the calendar (Muslim Ra's al-Sana). To any Iranians and all those other categories reading this, a happy Nowruz. We can all use a "new day," which is the literal translation.

Nowruz pirooz.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Two More Weeks, and Labor Still a Possible Partner for Bibi?

It looks increasingly as if Binyamin Netanyahu may manage to bring Labor, or some rump of it including Ehud Barak, into a "unity" government at the last minute: he'll have to ask for the additional two weeks for forming a government, but it would salvage some pretense of unity despite the fact that the largest party in the Knesset, Kadima, is having nothing to do with it. As I noted here, and as Haaretz spells out here in a more recent report, a substantial chunk of Labor is having none of it. (And to give the other end of the political spectrum its due, here's a Jerusalem Post take on the divisions within Labor.) Obviously Barak would get the Defense Ministry, but with Avigdor Lieberman slated for the Foreign Ministry, Israeli policy could look very strange indeed. One wants to withdraw from the West Bank (that would be the Defense Minister) and one has urged bombing the Aswan Dam (that would be the chief diplomat). If so much were not at stake, it would almost be amusing to watch.

In the midst of all this, new revelations about civilian casualties in Gaza are coming out, and getting a fair amount of play in the Israeli press, which, to their credit, is not turning a blind eye. Netanyahu seems determined not to have a far-right only coalition, but without Kadima and with perhaps only half of Labor, it's going to be an odd-looking national unity front. The second and third biggest parties join with half of the fourth biggest and proclaim themselves a national government, excluding the biggest party?

As strange as it seems to me, Aluf Benn, who is one of the best analysts out there, says that Bibi and Barak are really political soul-mates of a sort. That's probably an unfair summary by me: read the whole article.

And since no government has yet been formed and the mandate is expiring, expect Netanyahu to ask for the additional two weeks. This drama will continue yet longer.

Doha Summit Politics Heating Up

The Arab Summit scheduled for Doha, Qatar on March 30 is becoming highly politicized. Egypt's Husni Mubarak is warning that Egypt will probably not attend at the Presidential level (English version here) and complaining that the Qataris did not invite Egypt properly, with the invitation coming through a lower-level official. The recent Riyadh meeting between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Kuwait was clearly aimed at trying to associate Syria with the moderate Arab states and detach it from its ties to Iran, and Mubarak attended that one in person; Doha is clearly not as high a priority.

Egypt is also warning that if Qatar goes through with an invitation to Iranian President Ahmadinejad to attend the Doha summit (he was invited to a GCC Summit in Doha and again to the Gaza mini-summit in January), this will be an affront to Arab moderates, and reportedly three unnamed Gulf countries are threatening to reduce their level of representation if the Iranian is invited. (Saudi Arabia is presumably leading the charge; inviting a non-Arab leader to an Arab Summit is drawing complaints.)

With many moderate Arab states threatening to send low-level delegations, there is also one President who says he's coming but whose attendance could be awkward: Sudan's 'Umar al-Bashir, since he has a warrant outstanding against him from the International Criminal Court. Qatar has acceeded to the ICC statute with reservations, but most Arab states have criticized the ICC warrant for Bashir and, of course, no one is likely to arrest him at the summit, but his presence will be provocative.

So Doha is not, so far, shaping up as an Arab summit to express solidarity and reconciliation so much as one in which the divisions between those Arab states intent on ostracizing Iran (led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia) are forming ranks against those (including Qatar) who have been more conciliatory. The division carries over into other areas as well, including the Palestinian reconciliation talks in Egypt.

On the whole, Doha is looking divisive, and the split between "moderate" Arab states aligned with Cairo and Riyadh versus the rest seems likely to be deeper after Doha than before it.

Is This Cairo Bar Scene Month, or What?

Just a couple of weeks after The Huffington Post ran a nostalgic piece longing for the vanished bars of central Cairo, now the BBC comes along and runs a nostalgic piece longing for the vanished bars of central Cairo. Different byline, same basic theme. Some of the same experts interviewed: the novelist who wrote The Yaqoubian Building, evocations of Naguib Mahfouz and belly dancing joints.

I don't know whether there was a press tour involving bar-hopping, or this is just pack journalism, or what. The BBC article does interview the Doss family, who run the Barrel Bar at the old Windsor Hotel, one of the truly great relics of the British colonial era. But otherwise it's the same theme: longing for the good old days.

Hardly the first time journalists have come up with the same idea, but interesting. I hope no one is offended but I'm creating a new tag on "bars," not because I plan a lot of posts on them, but because it seems to be an emerging theme for Western journalists.

WHOA — UPDATING: the wave of articles has sparked a post and a long (and lengthening) comment thread at Arabic Media Shack debating the accuracy of the characterizations, the question of who drinks, and much else besides. A real coffeehouse debate is going on over there. These folks are taking it very seriously, and one even mentions the buza place in Ataba I recall visiting once. Go take a look if you have an interest.

Also I gather the Huffington Post piece may have originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Back to the Polls in Kuwait

The Kuwaiti government's continuing efforts to avoid having the Prime Minister questioned by Parliament has led to another government resignation and imminent dissolution of Parliament. This had been expected for a couple of weeks, but now it has occurred.

It's the third dissolution in three years, the second in a year. It means going back to the polls, probably in mid-May, to elect a new Parliament which will, inevitably, clash with the government at some point and seek to question the Prime Minister . . .

The fact that the PM is a senior member of the ruling family is, of course, where the problem lies. But it seems unlikely to lend itself to easy solutions.

Well, He Won't Be Abba Eban . . .

Here's a piece in Haaretz about the Egyptian Ambassador to Israel's reaction to the probability that Avigdor Lieberman will be Israel's next Foreign Minister. It seems Lieberman has said that Husni Mubarak can "go to hell" and once suggested bombing the Aswan Dam, which might be interpreted as undiplomatic remarks about a country with which Israel has a peace treaty. The Ambassador is quoted as being diplomatic: we'll judge by actions, not by past statements.

Lieberman in the government will be provocative enough, but Lieberman as Foreign Minister could turn out to be downright surreal. Either he will have to change his habit of shooting from the hip, or he will not last long in international diplomacy.

UPDATE: This story a day later suggests Egypt is a lot less patient about the appointment, and may boycott a ceremony marking 30 years after Camp David.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Saint Patrick's Day Special: Patrick and the Irish-Egyptian Connection

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).

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.

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. 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 tbe 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.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Egyptian Court Vindicates Baha'is

Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court has ruled that Egyptian Baha'is do not have to falsely list themselves as Muslim, Jewish or Christian in order to obtain state identification (necessary to attend school, receive state benefits, etc.). This particular case has been making its way through the court system for a couple of years, and has gained some international attention from human rights activists.

The case stems from the fact that under the laws of many countries in the Muslim world only the three major monotheistic religions have official recognition, combined with the fact that since Baha'ism originated within Islam, it is treated by many Muslims as apostasy.

This court ruling is a victory for Egyptian Baha'is, and it comes ironically at a time when Iran (the country in which Baha'ism first took root) is trying seven Baha'i leaders on charges of (among other things) spying for Israel. (The fact that world Baha'ism is headquartered in Haifa is also used against Baha'is in the Muslim world, though the fact dates from long before the creation of Israel.) The Iranian Baha'is are being represented by Nobel prizewinner Shirin Ebadi, but the Iranian courts are not as independent-minded as Egyptian courts still tend to be.

Lebanese Open Embassy in Damascus

Lebanon opened its Embassy in Damascus today, which would not be news except for the fact that there has never been an exchange of embassies between Lebanon and Syria before. Despite the close ties between the two countries and the long Syrian occupation of Lebanon, they've never exchanged ambassadors (and Syria still hasn't named an Ambassador to Lebanon, though it opened its Beirut Embassy in December).

Originally this was a sort of artifact of Syria's dreams of a greater Syria and resentment of the way the French mandate expanded the Ottoman boundaries of Lebanon to include territory Syria considered its own; eventually, even though both countries were members of the Arab League and signed agreements with each other, it became a bargaining chip for Syria's continued influence over Lebanon. In the Ta'if Accord of 1989 which ended the civil war (in theory, though fighting continued until 1991), Syria and Lebanon agreed to exhange embassies. It has only taken them 20 years to carry that out.

Lebanese media were quick to note that no official Syrian delegation was present at the flag-raising, and many interpreted this as a snub. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mu'allem said it was all a misunderstanding, that in fact Syria thought the Embassy opening was Sunday. He does not seem to have explained why no Syrian officials showed up Sunday, but the Embassy is open and the flag has been raised, and another diplomatic anomaly in Lebanon's status is finally removed.

Khatami Pulling Out in Favor of Mousavi?

It's being reported that Mohammad Khatami is going to withdraw from the Iranian Presidential race in favor of Mir-Hossein Mousavi. That would at least reduce the likelihood the reformist wing will split its vote among several candidates (though Mehdi Karrubi may still run); it also means that Mousavi, who doesn't have some of the baggage Khatami has (such as resentment by the student movement of crackdowns during his presidency). One question is whether Mousavi is well enough known to the younger generation of voters (he was Prime Minister back in the 1980s), but he may be a stronger challenger to Ahmadinejad than Khatami would have been.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Reporters Without Borders: 12 "Internet Enemies" include Seven in Greater Middle East (Also my 100th Post!)

Reporters Without Borders, the international organization that supports freedom of the press, has issued a new report on "Internet Enemies" in which it lists the 12 worst offenders against Internet freedom. Unfortunately, seven of the 12 are in the greater Middle East. Alphabetically (not in order of harshness), the seven are Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The other five offenders are Burma, China, Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam: not very good company to be in.

I'm just starting to read the report and may post more later. Meanwhile, the press release in English is here and the full Internet Enemies report is here (Acrobat).

They also append ten "countries under surveillance," meaning they're watching them closely, which include Bahrain, Eritrea, the UAE and Yemen, but also Australia and South Korea. Australia? The report also includes some useful links.

And, just to note a benchmark, this marks my 100th posting, beginning on January 27. Since I don't usually post weekends (or is that an odd observation to post on Sunday?) I think that averages three or so per work day. Thanks to those who are reading me and commenting, have linked to me, to the 43 (if Feedburner's count is reliable) RSS feed recipients as of yesterday, and do tell others if you like what you're seeing.

US Pressuring Israel over Ghajar?

A brief weekend posting: Here's an interesting story from Monday's Beirut Daily Star, (citing al-Balad), saying the US is quietly pressuring Israel to withdraw from the village of Ghajar before the Lebanese elections, on the grounds that this would help the March 14 movement (the pro-Hariri, pro-Western alignment).

Ghajar is one of those issues that usually flies under the international radar, except for a handful of specialists. You can get a fairly straight version of the story from Wikipedia. Ghajar is close to, but a separate issue from, the disputed Shebaa Farms; you can see its location on the map accompanying Wikipedia's Shebaa Farms article, however. Before 1967 it was administered by Syria, as part of the Golan Heights. Across the Lebanese border lay an adjacent village known as Wazzani. After some confusion it came under Israeli occupation. In 1976, when Israel first moved into southern Lebanon, Israeli troops moved across the border, and of course Israel occupied the border areas of Lebanon continuously from 1982 to 2000. During that period Ghajar expanded to include the former Lebanese village of Wazzani, and therefore straddled the Lebanese-Syrian border. In 2000, when Israel withdrew from South Lebanon, they withdrew from the Lebanese side of the border but retained the occupation of Ghajar on the Syrian side.

Then came the 2006 war with Hizbullah in Lebanon. Israel moved into the Lebanese side of Ghajar and, when it otherwise withdrew from undisputed Lebanese territory after the operation, it remained in the Lebanese part of Ghajar. The Israelis say that a plan to have UNIFIL deploy there was dependent on Lebanese Army cooperation that has not panned out. For whatever reason, the whole town remains under Israeli occupation. Unlike the Shebaa Farms, no one disputes that the northern part of Ghajar is historically Lebanese; they just dispute how to turn it over without giving Hizbullah control of it.

So the Daily Star article suggests that the US is quietly pushing to resolve the Ghajar issue before the Lebanese elections (which are June 7). It's a minor issue, unless you're a citizen of Ghajar (who are, oddly for that part of the region, mostly 'Alawites), but a symbolic one. The article doesn't say it, but I almost wonder if George Mitchell is involved, since it's been said he is planning to rely again on Fred Hof, who aided his earlier Middle East mission, and who happens to be one of only two or three people who understand the Lebanese border issues thoroughly.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Web 2.0 and Authoritarianism: Orwell Had it Backwards

My post yesterday about the fact that the Egyptian military cadets versus police clash noted that despite the fact that the government had banned not only the official media but Egypt's increasingly vocal independent newspapers from reporting on it (you can't report on anything involving the Army without crossing into taboo territory), you could watch a whole series of cell phone videos online within a couple of days of the events, leads me to reflect on the role that the information revolution has played in democratization movements. If the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was the revolution wrought by audio tapes and the August 1991 Soviet coup/countercoup was the first E-mail revolution, the "color revolutions" in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan and the "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon were the first real Web 2.0 Revolutions. But the new political ferment is finding whole new avenues for organization: the revolutions to come will not only be televised: they'll be organized on Facebook, documented on YouTube and reported on Twitter. If the American Revolution were to occur today, Tom Paine would probably be a blogger or a podcaster or both. It's the new pamphleteering.

It's not as outrageous as it sounds. Last year during the labor troubles in the big Egyptian textile center of Al-Mahalla al-Kubra (a major city whose name literally just means "big place," but which is Egypt's cotton heartland), a Berkeley graduate student named James Karl Buck was arrested. With the government limiting contact between Mahalla and Cairo, he simply sent a one-word "tweet" to Twitter on his cellphone: "Arrested." Here's one account of the story. Once Berkeley and the US Embassy knew an American was in custody, moves were set in motion to get him out. Of course, a lot of people are arrested in a lot of places who don't have a friendly consulate they can text to, but even so they can get information out, as those videos I linked to already of the Army-police clash indicate. During the 2005 Presidential elections some underground video of polling place shenanigans turned up on Egyptian opposition websites: the security types just aren't tech-savvy enough to check cellphones.

Let me emphasize that while this works in Egypt, a country with significant international trade and communications links and an educated, tech-savvy and cellphone equipped middle class, it doesn't work everywhere. In Saddam Hussein's Iraq, if you owned a typewriter you were required to register its keys with the police. Burma and North Korea do not seem to post to YouTube. But if you choose to block out the information age, you also cut yourself off from the global economy, and only a few hermit states like Burma and North Korea will choose to do so. Egypt is not a totalitarian society; it's authoritarian to be sure, and as the regime's arteries harden, it is often heavy-handed, but it has an independent press (though as seen here, it can't report certain stories), a traditionally independent judiciary (though fighting hard to remain so), and a people who've been dealing with would-be pharaohs since, well, the pharaohs, and have developed a wry sense of humor about governance. I have plenty of qualms about Egypt's regime, but great faith in its people. The fact that Husni Mubarak is not Saddam Hussein or even Bashar al-Asad means that, for all the regime's faults, there is an openness there, though tempered with a heavy-handed security regime.

The information revolution seems to have taken hold pretty well in Egypt, and while I haven't visited for a while it seems to have a lively Internet culture, tempered as usual with the occasional arrest of controversial bloggers. There's a real trade-off between Internet censorship and global commerce, and except for a few select cases of arrested bloggers, Egypt seems to have opted for the commerce side of the equation. China and Saudi Arabia have worked hard to control Internet access without impeding commerce: it hasn't always worked. Technology clearly is undermining authoritarianism. The idea that barring the independent newspapers from reporting the Army-police story will work is a sign that the security services just don't get it yet. But if the security services are behind the curve, the young hackers will really give them a run for their money.

And thus my title: Orwell got it backwards. In 1984 technology was the tool of the state in controlling the populace: viewscreens everywhere, everyone is constantly watched, Big Brother is constantly present. But technology went the other way: we can watch government. Google Earth shows us aerial views of just about everywhere (though someday I do want to blog on the strangely blurry imagery of Israeli Air Bases while you can identify aircraft types on Egyptian and Syrian air bases); government publications are available at the click of a mouse, and when the government — any government — does something out of bounds, cellphone video is all over the world in a minute. [As an aside, during the real, not fictional, 1984, I happened to be in Cairo on the night of the US Presidential election — Reagan-Mondale — and attended a party at the Nile Hilton of US expatriate types and a lot of young Egyptians. The Americans looked normal; the Egyptians were wearing straw hats with red, white and blue decor and were far more enthusiastic about the results coming in (in the wee small hours due to the time difference, though of course there wasn't a lot of suspense in the Reagan-Mondale race) than the Americans. Looking back, that may have been my single most Orwellian experience in the real calendar 1984.]

And, as I noted the other day in my "Mukhabarat 2.0?" post, young web-savvy Egyptians are not afraid to parody their security services. If democracy breaks out in the Arab world it will not be due to neoconservative preaching, altruistic evangelization, or patronizing neocolonial paternalism, it will come because the people have gained instruments that outmaneuver, undermine, or leapfrog over the walls the governments have built. It may not look like the American system, or the Westminster system, or even the French system, but technology is increasingly empowering people.

Okay, Egypt has taken a few hits here in recent days, so let me say something positive: if indeed Gamal Mubarak is going to be the next President of Egypt, he is at least Western educated (AUC), worked in the West (banker for a US bank in London), is a free-marketeer and, so far as I can tell, understands both globalization and the information age. I'm not a fan of hereditary monarchies, but his background and environment are very different from his father's. Of the various potential candidates within the government elite, he's probably a lot more of a free-market man than the various generals, party functionaries and security men otherwise in the picture. He would, I think, understand the lessons of those videos above, and perhaps move to restrain the security state, though I doubt he would end it.

Gamal is not, so far as I know, particularly committed to democratic reforms; odd how if you get your job because you succeed your father you may not see the advantages of electoral democracy. But open economies often lead to open societies (look at the changes in Taiwan and South Korea), though not invariably (China and Singapore). And he does seem to be the advocate of a more open economy. Perhaps I'm grasping at straws, looking for good points.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Egyptian Cadets Attack Police

Hmm . . . this story from BBC (another version from AP here) (and cell phone camera footage, with captions in Arabic, here) raises a lot of questions. Rivalry between the Egyptian Army and the police is one of the most sensitive issues in the country; each service is protective of its own. Back in 1986, when the Central Security Forces rioted, the Army was called in, one of the relatively rare times the Army has been used for internal law enforcement (the 1977 bread riots, and immediately after the Luxor tourist killings of 1997 are others). Generally the Interior Ministry, which runs the police, and the Defense Ministry with the armed forces are separate domains.

What seems to have happened here is cadets from the military academy decided to revenge themselves for police mistreatment of one of their own. That tells you a couple of things: a) the resentment of heavy-handed police bullying is not just limited to the civilian population, and b) the Army takes care of its own. The implications, however, are serious; as the BBC report notes, the incident suggests the further deterioration of the social fabric, along with all the labor unrest.

What also deserves comment, I think, is the fact that the government sternly ordered the press, including the independent press, to refrain from any mention of the incident, yet the videos are online already. It's a reminder that government security men have yet to come to terms with cell phone cameras and video sharing media. The days when a government could keep this sort of news from leaking are gone, except in countries like Saddam's Iraq or North Korea where computer ownership was tightly regulated.

Syria's Ongoing Reconciliation Efforts

Syria does seem to be rapidly trying to rebuild its ties to the rest of the Arab world. The "mini-summit" in Riyadh, with Bashar al-Asad, King 'Abdullah, Husni Mubarak and Sheikh Sabah of Kuwait all present is the most recent evidence, but Asad has recently been making nice not only with the US (which sent the Acting Assistant Secretary of State to Damascus) but even talking about going ahead with an Israeli peace treaty despite Binyamin Netanyahu's likely coming to power, and indicating that, if the US mediates, he could resume direct negotiations with the Israelis.

Part of this is, I'm sure, realpolitik. There's a new government in Washington that is extending a hand to Syria, after years of Syria trying to restart peace talks and being rebuffed by Washington. Part of it is inter-Arab maneuvering prior to the upcoming Doha Summit. Part of it is the fact that the Hariri Assassination investigation is getting ready to launch in The Hague, and Syria may need all the friends it can get lest it find itself where Sudan's 'Umar al-Bashir has found himself. Part of it is a real desire to cut a deal with Israel that gets back the Golan Heights, something that Hafiz al-Asad couldn't do in nearly 30 years in power. And some of it, too, may be a genuine discomfort with Syria being Iran's ally at a time when much of the Arab world is aligning against Iran: Syria, which long prided itself on being the "beating heart of Arabism," is seen by some Arabs as becoming a sort of Persian satrapy.

Now Bashar has gone to Riyadh and met with 'Abdullah, Mubarak, and Sheikh Sabah. As it happens, 'Abdullah has always been friendlier towards Syria than most Saudi royals because one of his wives was a Syrian 'Alawite (said to be kin to Rif'at al-Asad's wife, though Bashar's Uncle Rif'at has been in exile for quite some time now). But the Kingdom is not happy with Syria's flirtation with Iran and support of Hizbullah; and now Bashar has gone publicly to Riyadh to meet with the three most pro-Western Arab leaders.

Bashar is certainly trying to look like he's moderating and opening up on both peace with Israel (at a time when Netanyahu seems an improbable candidate for a Golan deal), reconciliation with Riyadh and Cairo, and opening up to the United States.

I remember a line used by a Syria hand when Bashar took power. I made a wisecrack about the improbability of an ophthamologist as the autocrat of Syria, and the friend (I'll identify him publicly only if he recognizes the line and admits to it) said that actually, an ophthamologist might be just right for a Middle Eastern leader: just as an eye doctor asks you, "which is clearer, this one -- or this one?" until he has your vision figured out, so such a careful and calibrated approach might be just right for a leader of Syria. I was among the skeptics who thought the seemingly gentle, British-trained ophthamologist wouldn't last very long in the den of wolves that he inherited in Damascus, but he is seemingly in full control now, and some of the wolves are in exile (Rif'at, 'Abd al-Halim Khaddam), dead (Ghazi Kan'an by -- possibly assisted? -- suicide), or in eclipse (longtime Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas, Intelligence Chief 'Ali Duba). Maybe the ophthamologist and his inner circle know something after all.

Egypt's Strike Wave: Even the Tax Collectors are Striking

I've previously mentioned Egypt's continuing wave of strikes. In recent weeks we've seen strikes by workers in the textile mills of Shibin al-Kom, strikes by television producers at the main Radio-TV building, protests by Al-Ahram columnists over restrictions on freelancing, lawyers' protests, a pharmacists' strike, scientific researchers demanding more subsidies, etc. etc.... and national level strikes last April to mark Mubarak's 80th birthday and ongoing labor troubles in the big industrial center of Mahalla al-Kubra.

Here's a bookmarks page by blogger Hossam al-Hamalawy, a labor activist (sort of a Trotskyite as near as I can tell) which collects a number of pieces (some in English and some in Arabic) on various labor actions and the efforts to create a free union movement. I'm not endorsing his Marxism or his interpretation, but this labor unrest has received very little attention in the West, at least outside of a few left-leaning academics such as the MERIP folks or Stanford's Joel Beinin, but it seems to be spreading and more of us should probably be following it.

You will notice that one of the major actions involves strikes by the real estate tax collectors. I will let you make up your own punchline on that one, but when the tax collectors start to strike, something is definitely going on.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Are Iran's Reformists Going to Split the Vote?

Mir-Hossein Mousavi, an Iranian Prime Minister from the 1980s, is now running for President as a reformer, joining former President Mohammad Khatami and former Speaker Mehdi Karrubi. The prospect of a divided reformist vote is therefore a real one, while so far President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has the hardline end of the spectrum to himself.

I still suspect Ahmadinejad could be vulnerable to a challenge, given the economic mess, but not perhaps a challenge from the reformers, but from a figure such as Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf. The reformers may manage to settle on a single candidate, but it looks as if the vote will be divided. Actually, some veteran Iran-watchers think that either Karrubi or Mousavi might run better than Khatami, even though the latter is popular abroad.

And, of course, some candidates may be disqualified by the Council of Guardians before the country goes to the polls.


Riyadh and Kuwait were hit today with a powerful sandstorm that reportedly disrupted air travel in the Gulf. BBC has video of the storm, described as one of the worst in decades.

No great inspiration today: all I've got so far is the weather.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Chas Freeman Withdraws

UPDATE II: Juan Cole has published Freeman's text so, I assume, it's intended for the general public, or at any rate has been made public, so I link to Juan's posting. This part, though, needs to be repeated here:
Still, for the record: I have never sought to be paid or accepted payment from any foreign government, including Saudi Arabia or China, for any service, nor have I ever spoken on behalf of a foreign government, its interests, or its policies. I have never lobbied any branch of our government for any cause, foreign or domestic. I am my own man, no one else’s, and with my return to private life, I will once again – to my pleasure – serve no master other than myself. I will continue to speak out as I choose on issues of concern to me and other Americans.
Well played, Ambassador Freeman, well played.

Ambassador Freeman has put out a fine statement to thank his friends and supporters. The version I've seen was not clearly authorized for open publication, but if and when it appears publicly I'll link to it. He essentially says that he concluded the "barrage of libelous distortions of my record" would continue after he took office and impair the work of the National Intelligence Council. It's a forceful statement. I hope it will be made public.


So Chas Freeman has apparently asked the Director of National Intelligence that his nomination as Chairman of the National Intelligence Council not proceed. I commented only at the very beginning of the debate, said my piece and saw no need to repeat myself, but the opponents repeated themselves endlessly on websites and op-ed pages, until the Chas Freeman being portrayed bore no discernible resemblance to the diplomat many of us know.

One of the ironies, of course, is that there are plenty of Israeli politicians whose views on Israeli policy are as critical as Freeman's, or more so. They may not have won the last election, but they are still part of acceptable political debate in Israel. In this country, criticism of Israeli policy now seems to be a red line that one cannot cross and still hope to win appointment to high office.

Ambassador Freeman will, I hope, return to his leadership of the Middle East Policy Council, where a reasonable (if sometimes dissenting) voice continues to be heard. What is really unfortunate is that, except for a few op-eds, most of the dirty work seems to have been done online, by blogs and websites that led the charge. The debate was vigorous but, given the fact that the news cycle has become so rapid, the whole thing ran its course before those supportive of Freeman's nomination were able to fully rally support: only in the last few days have statements of support for Freeman come from prominent academics, retired diplomats, and career intelligence officers. I won't link to the large number of sites, pro and con, that have proliferated recently because apparently, with Ambassador Freeman's withdrawal, the whole issue is moot. But as I said before, have any of these people describing some kind of fanatical critic of Israel ever met Chas Freeman, or heard his ideas in full context?

I also have to note that neither the Administration nor, so far as I can tell, the DNI mounted a major defense of the nomination, despite the concerted attacks against it. I think it was a highly defensible appointment, and deserved a stronger defense.

And as always when I take a position on a policy issue, I speak for myself, not the Middle East Institute, though I know I'm not alone here in thinking Chas Freeman deserved better.

Gamal Mubarak's Washington Visit

I haven't posted anything about Gamal Mubarak's Washington visit, but now that it's over, it may be worthy of some comment. The independent press in Egypt has raised questions about the visit, which kept a very low profile. He made an off-the-record appearance at CSIS, had a number of private meetings, and his only real public on-the-record appearance was his interview with Fareed Zakaria of CNN. The video can be seen here, and a written transcript is available here.

As this story in Al-Masry al-Youm indicates (English version here), it's a fairly softball interview. There's a fair amount of talk about Egyptian policies, but absolutely nothing (except in Zakaria's lead-in before Mubarak is onscreen) about Presidential succession. Presumably the reason for ignoring the elephant in the living room was Mubarak's own insistence, but the overall low-key aspect of the visit raises questions about what it was meant to accomplish.

I suspect that part of the answer is it was meant to introduce the younger Mubarak to certain elite elements in government and business, but that it was not meant to be a formal debut as heir apparent. He is, after all, officially only a second-level official of the ruling party, and holds no government position as such. On the other hand, no one is going to treat him as just another party functionary when his real role is increasingly obvious.

On the other hand, if this man is going to be the National Democratic Party's candidate in 2011, he's going to have to drop the pretense at some point. A lot of people were surprised at the last NDP conference that he was not more openly promoted as a future leader. He's still in the wings, and the Washington visit was just subdued enough to continue to keep him there.

You may note that the article in Al-Masry al-Youm quotes Lawrence Pintak, a veteran journalist now heading the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism Training and Research at the American University in Cairo. That gives me an opportunity to plug the fact that Larry has an article on the role of the Arab media appearing in the spring 2009 issue of The Middle East Journal, about which I'll say more at an appropriate time. It will appear next month.