A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

New Yorker on Egypt Succession

A reader has recommended a piece by Joshua Hammer in The New Yorker on the Egyptian succession. Unfortunately only the abstract is available to non-subscribers, but I'll link to that and those with access can read more.

The Iraqi Electoral Standoff

I've been staying away from the Iraqi election standoff because I figure Juan Cole, Reidar Visser, Marc Lynch and others who follow it more closely than I do have been keeping track of it. But as things get more and more tangled, I guess I ought to offer a few thoughts. And while the various issues involved do not involve hanging chads (non-US readers can Google it), it's still going to be a while before we see a government, I suspect. Here's my attempt at a summation for the perplexed.

‘Iyad ‘Allawi's Iraqiyya movement has the slight edge (91 seats to 89) over Prime Minister al-Maliki's State of Law bloc. Though both men are Shi‘ites, ‘Allawi is a secularist allied in a front with Sunnis. Under at least one interpretation of the constitution, ‘ Allawi, as leader of the party with the most seats, should have first crack at forming a coalition.

But there are two complicating factors. First, the Justice and Accountability Commission, the "De-Ba‘athification" commission led by Ahmad Chalabi (the onetime hero of the neocons, now seen as pro-Iranian) wants to disqualify six elected deputies. Three of them are from Iraqiyya, which means Maliki would have more seats than ‘Allawi. That attempt so far has not succeeded, but there's another issue. While Iraqiyya is a multi-confessional secular movement with a lot of Sunni support, the religious Shi‘ite vote is divided between two blocks: Maliki's State of Law and the Iraqi National Alliance, which includes the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq (formerly Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) and Muqtada al-Sadr's movement. Though the INA is more clearly Islamist and more indisputably pro-Iranian than Maliki's, they have more in common with each other than either does with Iraqiyya.

Now the plot thickens again. The Federal Supreme Court has ruled that is constitutional for parties to form blocs in order to qualify as the largest bloc. This is being challenged by Iraqiyya, but could mean that an alliance between INA and Maliki could block ‘Allawi. But we're likely to see more constitutional arguments.

There will be attempts by both sides to portray this as a fight between the US candidate, meaning ‘Allawi, and Maliki, who will be painted as too pro-Iranian. But Maliki was our guy too, and we should be careful to assume all Iraqi Shi‘ite religious-based parties are Iranian stalking horses (though it's hard not to see Sadr that way).

So far, and I emphasize that qualification, this is playing out democratically: through the courts, the official commissions, protests to electoral bodies, etc. I think it would be a mistake to go all chicken-little and start proclaiming that Iraq is on the verge of sectarian war. (The US had the whole hanging chad thing in 2000, but when the Supreme Court ruled, it was accepted. Let's give the Iraqis the benefit of the doubt.) It also occurs to me as ironic that what is, in fact, Iraq's second general election, is as stalemated as the US' second Presidential election in 1800, when John Adams ran against Thomas Jefferson but a (later fixed) Constitutional quirk allowed Aaron Burr to challenge Jefferson and throw the whole thing into the House of Representatives. I may be reaching a bit there, but hey, it's my blog.

I would expect the rhetoric to escalate. ‘Allawi will be denounced as an American stooge and a creature of the CIA (and there's at least circumstantial evidence that might be used against him), and he'll doubtless try to paint his opponents as Iranian agents. Things are rarely that black and white. Let's keep Western analysts' rhetoric within limits and hope the Iraqis do the same. If ‘Allawi ends up as PM, we've worked with him before. If Maliki wins, ditto. I don't intend to provide daily coverage of this, since the aforementioned other bloggers (especially Visser, but Cole's a pretty detailed poster on this stuff) are looking at the nuts and bolts.

Light Posting Until Evening

We're on the final glidepath with the spring issue of MEJ, so posting will be light today, probably not much until evening unless something major breaks.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Abu Dhabi Fund Chief's Body Found

UPDATE: Here's an appreciation from the Business section of The National, which of course has all the objectivity you'd expect of an Abu Dhabi newspaper when the Ruler's brother dies, but also offers more detail.

Four days after his ultralight aircraft plunged into a Moroccan lake, divers have found the body of the head of the Abu Dhabi Investment Fund, Sheikh Ahmad bin Zayed Al Nahayan, who is also the brother of the President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed.

The Abu Dhabi Investment Fund is the Emirate's sovereign wealth fund, reportedly the world's largest.

Walid Bey on the Arab Summit

I have a weakness for Lebanese Druze za‘im Walid Jumblatt, since if you disagree with what he says today, you'll probably like what he says tomorrow (neocon darling one day, Syria's friend the next, or as I've put it before, perhaps the only member in good standing of the Socialist International who has addressed the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation). His moral compass spins wonderfully with the shifting power balance. But how can you resist a statement that "Libya's Arab summit emphasized the continuous Arab course of deterioration and regression." Sometimes he nails it.

And the appropriate way to illustrate such wisdom is by reproducing Qifa Nabki's 2009 Halloween posting, in which reminded we are that, as a Druze leader, Walid Bey a Jedi Master is:

If I were that good at Photoshop, I'd really go to town here.

The National on Egypt's Succession

Nadia Abou el Magd offers a good summary of the Egyptian succession question in this morning's The National, the increasingly essential Abu Dhabi English daily. (My praise is totally independent of the fact that their journalists have interviewed me for a couple of stories.) This story notes that Gamal Mubarak's first daughter Farida was born in London, not Germany or the US as in some early reports, but also notes that it's still awkward for a potential President of Egypt to have his first child born in the capital of the former colonial power.

And since we've been so focused on Mubarak's health, return, granddaughter and other such things lately, I'm not sure if I've yet called your attention to Steven Cook's piece on Mohamed El Baradei in Foreign Affairs. Since Foreign Affairs has a lot more readers than I do, you probably have seen it already, but just in case, there it is.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Uh . . . This Might Be Bad Timing . . .

I don't mean to be flippant or offensive, believe me, but this ad appeared on Ha'aretz's website on the eve of Passover. I know it's probably a family name and all, but it just seemed a little out of place and poor timing for some group that may be regular advertisers:

Though they're probably used to such comments by now.

Bradley Burston on the Fourth Cup of the Seder

Though most who celebrated Seder tonight are probably not reading me afterward, perhaps some will tomorrow. Anyway, here's a piece by Bradley Burston, an American-Israeli columnist in Ha'aretz, meditating on the fourth cup of the Seder and a broader, more inclusive meaning for "Next Year in Jerusalem." Well said, I think. Especially now.

Ratcheting Up the Pressure?

A BBC report notes the possibility that the US might abstain on, rather than veto, a possible Security Council Resolution on construction in Jerusalem. That's an interesting development if true. From 1945 until 1970, the US never used the veto and made Cold War propaganda over the USSR's reliance on it. But beginning in the 1970s it has used the veto some 82 times, most commonly to block unilateral condemnations of Israel that do not also condemn Palestinian attacks.

Certainly there is a new willingness on the part of the Obama Administration to apply pressure on the Netanyahu Government. Even the dovish Ha'aretz has quoted Israeli sources as being concerned that the US might be thinking of an imposed Israeli-Palestinian settlement, not to mention Laura Rozen's column over the weekend which suggested a split between George Mitchell and his team and Dennis Ross over how to deal with Netanyahu. (The link includes the updates with denials, but the column has sparked a lot of blogosphere debate with its suggestion that Ross is more sensitive to Netanyahu's political considerations than to US interests.)

This might actually be getting interesting.

Why is This Night Different from All Other Nights?

I'm a bit long in the tooth to be the one to ask that question, but since my observant Jewish readers will presumably have other things to do tonight rather than read my blog, let me wish them a happy Passover, which begins at sundown. Chag Pesach Sameach.

The Sirt Summit

A reporter called me late last week to ask for my take on the Arab League Summit at Sirt, Libya. I said that it had a strong chance of being even more meaningless than the usual Arab League Summit, given Qadhafi's tendency to grandstand as a host and the major divisions in the Arab world. Also King ‘Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Sultan Qaboos of Oman, Husni Mubarak and others weren't attending. Marc Lynch expressed similar doubts ahead of time.

Well, there was a moment when Abu Mazen almost went home in protest, and as usual the main agreement was to criticize Israel. Other than that, it looks like there weren't any headlines, but also no big blowups like Qadhafi's sparring with ‘Abdullah at Doha last year.

The Arab League has a well-known rule of unanimity for any resolution; since it has also grown to include as full members Djibouti, Somalia, and the Comoros, whose Arabness is not apparent to everyone. (Brazil, Eritrea, India and Venezuela are "Observers," but the Comoros is (are?) a full member.) So unanimity is far harder than it was when the League was smaller.

Perhaps the League is an anachronism, and more regional groupings like the Gulf Cooperation Council or the Arab Maghreb Union make more sense today, though the latter has its own internal tensions. (Could Brother Leader be a common element here?)

Anyway, neither Lynch nor I was proven wrong by a stunningly successful summit in Sirt.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mubarak's Return: Everyone in Cairo Goes to Sharm al-Sheikh

Here's video of Mubarak arriving at Sharm al-Sheikh yesterday. Did the last person out of Cairo remember to turn off the lights? It looks like everybody was at Sharm. The Sheikh al-Azhar, the Coptic Pope (side by side), the Government, the Party, the military commanders. Not sure I saw the PM so perhaps he stayed behind, but the camera mostly stays on Mubarak. [I just remembered PM Nazif was at the Arab League Summit in Libya.]

He seems a little shaky on his feet in the video, but he's walking without aid (Suzanne not even holding his hand coming down the steps), so the more dire suspicions should be disproven.

A Further Thought: At least the way this clip is edited, he seems to have more of a conversation with Pope Shenouda than anybody else. An attempt to show Copts aren't second class citizens? Or just two octogenarians talking about their latest health problems?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

He's Back.

Mubarak's back in Egypt, continuing his convalescence at Sharm al-Sheikh.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Iraqi Results

It's Friday night and the weekend looms, so for now I'm going to just link to Reidar Visser's publication of the final but uncertified Iraqi election results, in which ‘Allawi's bloc edged out Maliki's by a mere two seats, and remind you of the qualms I expressed on Monday about drawing major conclusions in such a squeaker election. With that, have a good weekend, and maybe Iraq will be clearer by Monday.

Mubarak Return Watch

Ever since the video of Husni Mubarak alive and chatting with his doctors was released ten days ago, there has been continuing speculation about when he is going to return home. He picked the new Sheikh al-Azhar from Germany. Officially, as Marc Lynch felicitously put it today, he remains "very, very not sick and doing wonderfully." So why is he still running Egypt from Germany?

Two days ago his doctors reported he would be released "in the coming days." Several non-official publications in Egypt have predicted his return "within hours" for several days now, and there was a flurry of reports suggesting he would return today, since Friday is the day off in Egypt and it's easier for the ruling party to put together a "spontaneous" mass welcome. But it's late in the evening in Cairo and there are no reports of his return.

This whole gall bladder operation has fueled rampant speculation, made the Egyptian bourse extremely nervous, and of course the revelation (only after the biopsy proved the tumor benign) that a tumor was removed added to the jitters. So it will be interesting to see if he returns over the weekend; if not, the rumors will continue.

The OK Corral: Obama Gives Netanyahu an Ultimatum?

Is this a sea change?

Most of this is coming from the Israeli press, but to use a scholarly term of art: wow, just wow. The Jerusalem Post is reporting that Obama has insisted that Netanyahu clarify Israel's settlement policies by Saturday. Yes, that's Shabbat, and yes, I'm pretty confident the US knew that. Ha'aretz, which doesn't like Bibi, says the Inner (security) Cabinet is likely to split over the issue. And there are multiple reports out there that the Obama Administration wants the Arab League Summit in Sirt, Libya, to restate the Arab League Initiative, which Israel has so far ignored. Not surprisingly given his insight and eloquence, Akiva Eldar puts it all together for us at Ha'aretz.

If everything that's being reported is true, it sounds like Obama is trying to split the Netanyahu coalition. The major likely defector would of course be Ehud Barak and Labor, but if they did defect it would deprive Bibi of his fig leaf of center-leftists and leave him with nothing but the hard, nationalist/religious/loony right. He could (barely) govern with it, but Israel's international reputation would be degraded, and that is saying something. It could work, because Netanyahu himself is not as ideological as much of his coalition and even his own Likud — he has always struck me, and lots of Israelis I respect, as an opportunist. Up against the wall, a Likud-Kadima-Labor coalition might be more attractive to him than his present ultra coalition. (But since Kadima has more seats than Likud, he'd probably have to rotate the premiership with Tzipi Livni. That's why he didn't cut a national unity deal in the first place.)

Also at Ha'aretz, (yes, I know I'm showing my biases; it's my blog): Yossi Verter has this to say:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned from the United States Thursday with egg all over his face but also with a painfully sharp insight - gone are the days when the White House was considerate about the intricacies of Israeli domestic politics.

Former prime ministers used to tell American presidents, "Understand, I have a problematic coalition." This no longer works. Obama is not making any effort to show sensitivity to Netanyahu's distress and worse - he's ignoring it as though he intends to wreak some political chaos here.

"Obama isn't only sticking the knife in," a minister said, "he's twisting it and enjoying it."

Shock treatment, a senior Likud figure said Thursday about Netanyahu's experience in Washington. If it changed him, Netanyahu will soon have to make a strategic decision whose importance cannot be overestimated. He will not be able to make this decision in the seven ministers' forum, with people like Benny Begin, Moshe Ya'alon, Avigdor Lieberman and Eli Yishai.
I have to wonder if the coincidence of Netanyahu's AIPAC visit with the health care reform vote gave Obama some confidence about standing up to Netanyahu. And if the multiple affronts (to Biden and then to Obama himself) didn't firm up his resolve. Bibi, chutzpah has its merits, but when you go visit your major ally, financial supporter and defense provider, it may not be the moment to slap leather at the OK corral.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The National on Yemen Succession, and Some Thoughts on the English Language Arab World Press

Abu Dhabi's The National is one of the Arab world's newest English language dailies, but it is rapidly making itself the leader of the pack. Here's a very informative piece about potential succession in Yemen, which dares to look at President Salih's family and tribal links. It is proving to be a good paper, independent and thought-provoking.

One good thing about The National's emergence is the fact that despite a growing population of English dailies and weeklies in the Arab world, the quality is generally not that great. Even the patriarch of them all, Beirut's Daily Star, which closed for a long period during the civil war, has never fully recovered, and faces major challenges, economically and editorially. It's a shadow of its former self, though it still has a few truly first-rate columnists, of whom Rami Khouri is by far the best and Michael Young, I think, a strong second.

The others are far behind. Arab News and Saudi Gazette are impeded by Saudi censorship and most of the other Gulf English papers (Gulf News, Emirates News, the Omani English papers, etc.) reflect their host government's views. Egypt's independent press is trying, and Al-Masry al-Youm's English website is showing promise, though I gather it's not yet available in print. Of the official Egyptian efforts, only Al-Ahram Weekly is worth reading.It's generally better than the Arabic daily, since the government is less concerned about what goes out in English.

Of course there are many online websites that do a good job. Here I'm talking about the print press, and to be honest, I've never even seen a paper copy of The National (though they do make the PDF available). It's a rather Anglocentric approach to review English language papers, when anyone with a serious interest ought to learn Arabic, but I am starting to sense that The National is starting to fill a niche that the Daily Star is slowly surrendering.

Aluf Benn on Netanyahu's Failure

Aluf Benn at Ha'aretz can say things most American op-ed writers are reluctant to express. This is worth reading carefully. But here's the hook:
Details emerging from Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington remain incomplete, but the conclusion may nonetheless be drawn that the prime minister erred in choosing to fly to the United States this week. The visit - touted as a fence-mending effort, a bid to strengthen the tenuous ties between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama - only highlighted the deep rift between the American and Israeli administrations.

The prime minister leaves America disgraced, isolated, and altogether weaker than when he came.

Instead of setting the diplomatic agenda, Netanyahu surrendered control over it. Instead of leaving the Palestinian issue aside and focusing on Iran, as he would like, Netanyahu now finds himself fighting for the legitimacy of Israeli control over East Jerusalem.

The most sensitive and insoluble core issues - those which when raised a decade ago led to the dissolution of the peace process and explosion of the second intifada - are now being served as a mere appetizer.

Read it all. Sometimes Israelis express it in ways Americans are hesitant to broach.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Yep-Roc Heresay (or Yabra Harissa)

Okay, for the record, don't blame me for posting on something less serious than Netanyahu. Here's the isnad or chain of transmitters for this one: Qifa Nabki started this here; (he in turn ultimately blames Josh Landis, though I haven't seen anything on Syria Comment); then The Arabist piled on; so I'm really just piling on what they began. I'm not sure if several specialized Middle East bloggers counts as going viral, but anyway: The YouTube video is via The Arabist, but the best explanation is Qifa's:

He's jazz musician Slim Gaillard, and the song is usually known as something like "Yep-Roc Heresay." And now the explanation:

That’s right, he’s singing about food: yabra (i.e. stuffed graped leaves), harisseh (a semolina dessert), kibbeh bi-siniyyeh (a dish of meat and bulgur), lahm mishweh (grilled meat), etc.

A great tune. So what’s the back-story? I’ve been able to dig up various bits and pieces, but perhaps one of the readers can help out. The Wikipedia page on Gaillard suggests that he was reading from an Arabic menu, while this page claims that it was an Armenian menu, and that the song was actually “banned on at least two Los Angeles radio stations for its suspicious lyric references to drugs and crime…” (!)

The song has since become something of a standard, as evidenced by this rendition by what looks like some kind of wedding band. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so hysterical. Who knew that Levantine cooking lent itself so well to vocalese?)

So enjoy. It's more diverting than arguing about settlement building. Good music, and it makes you hungry for Lebanese food.

Some Reflections on the Netanyahu Visit

I'm still not entirely sure whether the latest flap between Israel and the US — the announcement of the approval of 20 apartments in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, leaked just as Bibi was about to meet with Obama — was a deliberate provocation or whether Netanyahu was blindsided by the Municipality of Jerusalem. The story is an old one dating back to last summer, and it's just that the final approval leaked out at a sensitive time, but it clearly had the appearance of another direct affront to the US on top of the earlier announcement on the eve of the Biden visit.

Bibi's having a bad week: not only a difficult visit to Washington, but the British have just kicked out an Israeli diplomat over the Dubai affair; it was reportedly the chief of Mossad's London station.

Of course as I noted previously Bibi wasn't even supposed to meet with Obama, who was originally due to be in Asia; when that trip was canceled to see the health care bill through, a meeting with Netanahu (here for AIPAC) was arranged. By all accounts, it was an uncomfortable one; this latest reappearance of the Sheikh Jarrah controversy looks like a provocation, though it's not clear if Bibi knew it was going to leak when it did.

US-Israeli relations are quite awkward right now, but what may be more interesting is the growing number of critics of Netanyahu's settlements defiance among American Jews and among mainstream Israelis. The automatic tradition (encouraged by AIPAC) of equating "pro-Israeli" with "pro-Likud" may be waning thanks to Netanyahu's intransigence and the emergence of J Street and similar groups. It reminds me of once back in the 90s when the late Yitzhak Rabin was sharply critical of AIPAC, which he saw as undermining his own policies. Netanyahu is not Israel, just its current Prime Minister.

Netanyahu-Obama: Coming Soon

I haven't posted on the Netanyahu visit yet because, as I've explained, I'm crashing on the Spring Issue deadline and a major staff transition, and because everybody else is on it, and finally, because he just met with Obama last night (a summit which wouldn't have happened at all if Obama had gone to Asia as scheduled instead of staying in DC for the health care bill). Early reports are pretty vague — apparently Netanyahu was in the White House a couple of hours after the supposed ending of the meeting? — but I'll comment sometime later in the day as more information leaks becomes available. More later.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Chinese Navy Visits the Gulf

A Chinese naval contingent is visiting Abu Dhabi. China had already projected naval power in the region by patrolling the Gulf of Aden against Somali pirates to protect Chinese shipping.

In the Middle Ages, Arab traders sailed from Basra to the Guangzhou region regularly. Today, China is beginning to return the favor.

Admiral Mahan, please call your office.

The Heir Presumptive Has an Heir

Egypt isn't officially a monarchy again (yet), but heir apparent Gamal Mubarak's wife Khadiga has just had a daughter, Farida, born in Germany where everybody in the Mubarak family seems to be at the moment (or maybe in the US: there seem to be conflicting reports and the semi-official account I linked to doesn't say). Congratulations to the proud parents and grandparents, I'm sure.

Hmm . . . am I the only one that immediately thought of another Farida: Queen Farida, King Farouq's first queen? Hmm.

Update: In other news from the Mubarak family, there are reports Farida's granddad will return to Egypt "within hours."

Mauritania Severs Ties with Israel

Having already expelled the Israeli Embassy last year, Mauritania has now formally severed diplomatic relations with Israel. Once one of only three Arab countries to have full diplomatic relations (along with Egypt and Jordan), the present leadership has been moving towards the break for some time.

A Depressing Statistic Indeed

Abu Muqawama has what he calls "The Most Depressing Statistic of the Week":
But the federal government selected 869 finalists for the [Presidential Management Fellowship] this year, and just ten (10) are engineers. Ten.

The next time you wonder why our infrastructure is falling apart, or why we cannot effectively oversee defense contracts for large weapons systems, remember that fact.

(By contrast, of course, my officemate has an organization chart on the wall depicting China's government. The president, premier and eight of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee are engineers. Just sayin'.)

Since Abu Muqawama (Andrew Exum) knows the Arab world very well, I'm sure he's well aware that anyone in the Arab world with an engineering degree is addressed by the honorific "al-Muhandis" (Engineer), an honorific title up there with "doctor" and "professor" in prestige.

New Sheikh Al-Azhar Won't Quit NDP

I'm still on both the Spring issue deadline and in the midst of a major staff turnover, so posting is likely to be short and sweet (well, at least short), and mostly links, for a few days.

Here's one: Sheikh Al-Tayyib, the newly named Sheikh al-Azhar, has declined to agree to calls for him to resign from the ruling National Democratic Party. Quote: "It is not expected that the grand sheikh--or any other government official--oppose the regime." Well, true as far as it goes, but sometimes the Sheikhs al-Azhar have at least pretended to some independence despite being appointed (since the Nasser era) by the President; and non-membership in the ruling party does not equate to opposition to the regime in countries with real multi-party systems.

There's really nothing to see here; the position is clearly an official one and has been for decades; the new Sheikh just sees no reason even to go through the motions to pretend otherwise.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Two Recent Al-Qa‘ida Items

A couple of recent items of Al-Qa‘ida-related interest:

Clinton's AIPAC Speech

The State Department has posted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speech to AIPAC: text here and video here.

The Iraqi Election Returns

I haven't commented on the Iraqi election returns as they trickle in, because there's little to be learned from breathlessly counting every vote. The next government will emerge from Parliamentary maneuvering and deal-making. Some of the general media have been reporting that ‘Iyad ‘Allawi's Iraqiyya has "inched ahead" of Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law Alliance, as if that means ‘Allawi would be the next Prime Minister if he holds the lead. It's not that simple.

What's clear is that the two major alliances led by those two men have won virtually equal blocs in Parliament; if you look at the vote at the 95% reported stage over at Reidar Visser's, you'll see that they're only one seat apart. Don't forget the last Israeli elections: Kadima won the most seats, but ended up in opposition. And the Iraqi votes from abroad and the security forces' votes, I believe, have not yet been counted.

So, despite the highly public demand by Maliki (echoed by President Talabani) for a manual recount, nobody is on the verge of being counted out yet. I'm not an Iraq expert, and for now I'm taking a wait-and-see approach. This story begins to get interesting when the votes are final.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Nowruz Greetings

Before I shut down for the weekend, let me pass on to all my readers who celebrate Nowruz — Iranians, Kurds, Turks, Central Asians, followers of the Zoroastrian and Baha'i faiths, and others — my wishes for a happy new year tomorrow.

As I noted in my Nowruz musings last year, I've always thought having the new year at the vernal equinox was more appropriate than celebrating it in the dead of winter, and especially after the horrible winter Washington endured this year, I'm welcoming spring. A happy new year.

The New Sheikh al-Azhar

President Mubarak, acting from his hospital in Germany, has named Dr. Muhammad Ahmad al-Tayyib as the new Sheikh al-Azhar. He has been serving as the head of Al-Azhar University, and is a former Mufti. He's considered a strong critic of the Muslim Brotherhood.

An English report here; an Arabic one here.

Strange Newsless Arab News Story

Okay, Journalism 101: who, what, when, where, why? An Arab News story with a headline that does what it should, grabbing the reader: "Saudi Writer Charged with Blasphemy." Read the link first, then consider: a "Saudi writer" (unnamed) is facing a possible charge of blasphemy because "a number of people" (unnamed) have alleged that he "allegedly insult[ed] the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)" because he "allegedly described a Hadith of the Prophet [unspecified] as barbaric," on Al-Hurra, the US-backed Arabic channel.

I suppose if I search Al-Hurra long enough I might figure out who he is, what he said, and what hadith is involved, but so far all I can Google up is the Arab News story. But would a Saudi writer really say something negative about the Prophet on an American channel? Was he critiquing a strong hadith or a weak hadith? Is he a "writer" with religious qualifications?

Beats me. Recently we've seen other evidence that some Saudi citizens seem to forget where they're living, but a Saudi writer really ought to know the ground rules. If we ever hear more of this, which is far from guaranteed, it will be interesting to learn what the details are, because right now they aren't obvious.

A Critique of Ahmad Nazif and a Mubarak Retrospective

In the absence of a Vice President, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif has been Egypt's acting President in the absence of Husni Mubarak in Germany. Here's a piece in The National noting that Nazif is getting low marks for his leadership during the absence.

No surprise there. Under Egypt's strong Presidential system (which gives the President roughly the powers exercised by, say, Ramses II, and the Prime Minister little authority at all), the Prime Minister is just the top bureaucrat/technocrat. The notion that, as Chairman of the Council of Ministers, he can tell the Minister of Defense or Minister of the Interior what to do, would generate guffaws from most Egyptians, probably including Nazif himself. If critics are criticizing him for not saying enough about the death of the Sheikh al-Azhar, which is mentioned in the article, it's doubtless because he hasn't yet been told what he thinks on the matter. The next Sheikh al-Azhar will be chosen by Husni Mubarak or someone else in the senior elite, not Nazif.

While I'm on Egypt, though I've been cribbing a lot from The Arabist lately, he has posted a video essay on the Mubarak years which, while clearly partisan, has a lot of interesting historical video, and since he has posted embed codes, I'll pass it on:

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The IslamOnline Brouhaha; Light Posting

I haven't posted anything about the controversy over the popular website IslamOnline. The Arabist has a good summation and links to several accounts covering the dispute. Basically the Qatari Board of the website has purged the Cairo office, which is now claiminng a hardline Islamist takeover of rhe site.

I'm on deadlne for the spring issue and about to go through a major staff transition as well, so posting may be lighter than usual.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

For St. Patrick's Day, An Oldie but a Goodie: the Ties Between the Irish and Coptic Traditions

A year ago on Saint Patrick's Day, I discoursed at some length about the hints and clues of ancient links between the early Irish church, including possibly Patrick himself, and the Coptic church of Egypt: the presence of Irish pilgrims in Egypt, of Coptic monks in Ulster, of liturgical and monastic similarities, etc.

Since the blog was less than two months old at the time a lot of my current readers probably weren't following me yet, and most of you probably don't have so much time on your hands as to have read the whole archive, I thought I'd refer you back to it. If you haven't seen it before, enjoy; if you have, I haven't much to add to it but I still think it's little known (and not conclusive), but heck, it's Saint Patrick's Day and my name is Michael Collins Dunn. What can I say?

As I said back then, Misr Umm al-Dunya and Erin go Bragh.

to you all.

Nathan Brown on the Mubarak Succession

Nathan Brown, whose turf is constitutionalism in the Arab world and who's the best at what he does, offers some comments at FP's new Middle East Channel on "Who's Running Egypt?" In the absence of Mubarak, it's a good question. First, Nathan's key points, then some comments of my own:
The article [in al-Shuruq] suggested that the country appears to be run by an absent president, a technocratic prime minister, a few leading politicians, and a collection of men behind a curtain.

This is new. For all its faults, Egypt's political system generally makes clear who is in charge. The entire political order is carefully structured to have all lines of authority run to the president. As Mubarak has aged, however, his visible involvement in Egyptian politics has decreased, leading Egyptians to swap rumors about who is really running the country. Is it the security apparatus? His son? High members of the National Democratic Party? What is the role of his wife, a visible figure in Egyptian public life? Most important of all, who will follow him? Mubarak's illness has catapulted these questions from the rumor mill to the headlines. But it has not answered them.

Aside from its overenthusiastic punctuation, the al-Shuruq article calmly reported that Husni Mubarak had deputized Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif to take on day-to-day presidential responsibilities. But Nazif is no Alexander Haig asserting that he is in control. If there is an Egyptian Haig, he is not in sight. The article made clear that Nazif's authority is limited and that in important matters (such as those related to security) he consults with named and unnamed responsible authorities.
While there's little in Nathan's analysis I disagree with, I think I'd add a few things. I haven't been to Egypt for a while but I think you already know I watch it closely. So some comments:

  • "the country appears to be run by an absent president, a technocratic prime minister, a few leading politicians, and a collection of men behind a curtain." And of course, the military and security services, though that's clear from some of the later comments. The men behind the curtain are the real story.
  • This is new. Sort of. There have been periods of uncertainty in the past, but no President has been this old before.

  • But Nazif is no Alexander Haig asserting that he is in control. If there is an Egyptian Haig, he is not in sight. No complaints on the "Nazif is no Alexander Haig" remark (younger and foreign readers: Haig was a Secretary of State who famously said "I'm in charge" when Ronald Reagan was shot, and died just recently). Nazif is just a technocrat. But "If there is an Egyptian Haig, he is not in sight" gives me more problems. Al Haig was sharp and ambitious and thought he had power, but I don't think Haig at his best could exercise the sheer power of ‘Omar Suleiman.

  • As Mubarak has aged, however, his visible involvement in Egyptian politics has decreased, leading Egyptians to swap rumors about who is really running the country. Is it the security apparatus? His son? High members of the National Democratic Party? What is the role of his wife, a visible figure in Egyptian public life? Most important of all, who will follow him? Okay, my own take, purely subjective and probably incomplete, but let's take it in order:Is it the security apparatus? Yes. His son? No, not yet, though he pretty much controls the party. High members of the National Democratic Party? Yes, Gamal among them but not supreme, and with the security services looking over their shoulders. What is the role of his wife? Well, she's cast her lot with Gamal I suspect, and like Jihan al-Sadat has become a public figure in her own right, but also like Jihan, loses that job when her husband leaves the stage.

  • I know Nathan is writing for a non-specialized audience here, so this isn't criticizing his statement, but I want to comment on this: The article made clear that Nazif's authority is limited and that in important matters (such as those related to security) he consults with named and unnamed responsible authorities. Well, as he most surely knows, he has to. Nazif has no power base of his own, and Nathan didn't need Al-Shuruq to tell him that. And the "unnamed responsible authorities"? Let's see: the aforementioned ‘Omar Suleiman, head of the General Intelligence Service and, increasingly, Lord High Everything Else (thank you, Gilbert and Sullivan); Habib al-‘Adli, Minster of the Interior and fellow who controls most of the internal security apparatus; Field Marshal Tantawi, Defense Minister but definitely third in the triumvirate. Oh, and Gamal, the Party leadership, and others. Including Suzanne (Mme Mubarak).

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mubarak Lives

I noted yesterday that it was likely, if Husni Mubarak was conscious, that they could not wait much longer before releasing a photo, what with the market plunging and rumors rampant. Well, it appears he's alive, and that his hair is still as jet black as ever:

Added: Yes, I realize this could have been taken days ago and he could have had a setback, or conceivably it could have been taken before the surgery. On the other hand, if you watch the video, the German doctors' briefing is in English, and unless they are also part of a coverup, I take it as legit.

Playing with Fire? Banning Chaharshanbe Souri

Supreme Leader/Rahbar Ayatollah Khamene'i has apparently issued a fatwa against Iranians celebrating the ancient Iranian feast/ritual of Chaharshanbe Souri, a feast, the name of which is just "Wednesday feast," and which begins tonight and runs through tomorrow. It is celebrated on the Wednesday before Nowruz, March 21. And there is fire used in the ceremonies.

While some of the references, including the sparse Wikipedia entry, downplay any religious content and portray the feast as essentially an ancient Iranian preparation for Nowruz, I'm sure the element of fire in the ceremonies brand it as essentially a Zoroastrian feast in the eyes of the clerical establishment.

The Zoroastrians or Parsees may be the only religious minority of any size I haven't blogged about, but they're going to have to wait till my spring issue is out.

Again, though, for secular Iranians, it's a traditional, national Iranian celebration and the regime sees it as a pretext for shutting down demonstrations yet again.

But one thing even Khomeini never did was undercut the Persian element in Iranian culture in favoring the Islamic element. I have few doubts this is intended as an Islamic purity move, but also as a way of shutting off public demonstrations.

I'm Late, But Here are Some Comments on the "Petraeus Memo" Story

Since I didn't post over the weekend (I was busy with getting my daughter's new laptop up and running with all necessary software), I didn't comment, as most Middle East bloggers did eventually, on Mark Perry's story about CENTCOM's General Petraeus and JCS' Admiral Mullen's reported comments on the relationship between Israeli-Palestinian issues and CENTCOM's area of responsibility. If you haven't yet read it or any of the many commentaries based on it, click the link first before coming back here for my take.

Among the issues is the concern that not only Israel but also Palestine are outside CENTCOM's AOR and are considered part of the European Command's AOR, and general Petraeus is portrayed as asking that Palestine (but not necessarily Israel) be included under CENTCOM. (I'm not sure if it's still the case but it also used to be true that Time and Newsweek distributed their European edition, not their Middle East edition, in Israel; I think so an "Israel" price wouldn't appear on the cover of issues sold in the Arab world.)

If you read the two updates to Perry's post, you'll note that a) the Pentagon denied that Petraeus had sent a memo to the White House, but b) there's a clarification that Petraeus sent the memo to Mullen. (For those who aren't wonkish on this stuff: Petraeus is commander of the US Central Command, covering the Middle East except Israel; Mullen is his boss, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.) In other words, the denial is of the specific detail, not the overall story.

The real story here, I think, is that CENTCOM has always been treated as a Gulf Security and Southwest Asia force even though ,North Africa and other Arab lands from Egypt eastward were in its AOR. Petraeus, who seems willing to note it publicly when the Emperor is underdressed, has actually noted that thing so often denied by Washington policy types: linkage. What happens in Gaza does affect our men and women serving in Afghanistan or Iraq, and thus at least the Arab part of the equation (the Palestinian Authority) is very relevant to CENTCOM.

It won't happen, unless I'm missing a bigger sea change than seems likely, despite the Biden snub. But the fact that Petraeus and Mullen may be arguing for it is very interesting. It suggests that Petraeus is not just one of our smartest CENTCOM commanders (I don't know if any of his predecessors had an earned Ph.D. as he does), but one of our shrewdest and, it would appear, boldest. He's saying something his predecessors have thought and haven't said. Of course, he's venturing into what the Supreme Court once called "the political thicket," which can be dangerous ground for men in uniform. Ask Douglas MacArthur. Or George McClellan.

All assuming, of course, that Perry got his facts right. Some related thoughts by Andrew Exum here.

Akiva Eldar on Two Current Issues

A column by Akiva Eldar in Ha'aretz on two items: the curious timing of the Ramat Shlomo decision which created the crisis with the US, and the late David Kimche (which he spells Kimchi in the English text, which makes me think of Korean cabbage).

Some new insight on both themes.

Also, on a lighter note from the same paper: American-Israeli columnist Bradley Burston on "A warning to Mr. Biden: We negotiate like we drive." It's funnier if you've ever actually driven in Israel, as I have. (But only once in one two-week stay, out of a great many trips there. The taxis and sheruts seem more dangerous, but know the rules, or non-rules. I don't.)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Egypt is Jittery over Mubarak's Health

UPDATE: The EGX index lost 3% of its value today, apparently for no reason other than the rumors about Mubarak.

The Egyptian stock market is sliding as speculation grows about the lack of any photographs of Husni Mubarak in his Heidelberg hospital, nine days after his surgery. This comes after the announcement that the tumor removed from his small intestine was benign; the growth had been mentioned briefly by the German doctors but generally ignored in the media until after the biopsy.

At 81, any surgery is likely to take time to recover, but you normally expect a photo of a smiling President in his hospital bed, perhaps talking on the phone to show he's on top of things. The fact that the President not only has not appeared in public but that photos have also been absent is starting to spur rumors back home, as witnessed by the stock market slide and by the Google suggestions that pop up when you search on "Mubarak" in Google News:

The official statements by the German doctors remain positive, but coffeehouse speculation is inevitable when there are no pictures. While there are always rumors, when they build to the point where the markets begin to drop, this naturally catches one's attention. If it goes another day or two without even a still photo, the jitters may deepen.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Wa'el ‘Abbas Sentenced to Six Months on Same Charge on Which he Was Acquitted?

Wa'el ‘Abbas, the Egyptian blogger/activist who was recently cleared by a court of seemingly trumped-up charges, has nevertheless reportedly been given a six-month sentence on essentially the same charge. Egypt's independent judiciary increasingly finds itself manipulated or outmaneuvered or its rulings simply ignored. Here's his own blog post on the subject, as well as his previous not guilty post. (The posts mix English and Arabic reports.)

The accusation is that he stole Internet access from a neighbor (huh? The whole thing has seemed strange all along) but if he wasn't a blogger this wouldn't happen. (And the courts found he was innocent anyway.)

Of course, "double jeopardy" doesn't translate well, I guess. Best of luck to him, his lawyers, and the courts that at least try to enforce their decisions.

Barring anything major, I'm off for the weekend.

Great News: Mubarak's [Not Previously Mentioned] Tumor was Benign

Husni Mubarak's gall bladder operation in Egypt last Saturday raised a few eyebrows since after its proclaimed success he remained in intensive care for four days. Sure, he's 81, but what was originally described as a gallstone related operation (often done with laparoscopy rather than invasive surgery) doesn't usually require the ICU. Now that he's out of intensive care (but still in the hospital in Heidelberg) we get the good news that the tumor or growth removed from (not clear from various sources if it's the duodenum or the small intestine) is benign. (Link is in Arabic: the word Waram means tumor), but I'm still not seeing it in most English sources. Oddly enough the Egyptian press forgot to mention it. Only when the news was good do we learn that we were waiting for a biopsy. Apparently there was a passing reference in the German doctors' first announcement to some abnormal tissue in the duodenum or intestine, but this got lost in translation and, presumably, neglected by the Egyptian press.

Well, good health to him anyway. I hope he's thinking of a long and quiet retirement somewhere. Apparently there are a lot of rumors in Egypt (no photos of him in the hospital have appeared so the usual "he's dead/he's in a coma" buzz that crops up just about every time he drops from public view is back in force). But at least we know the tumor that we didn't know he had is benign.

US Does Something Smart

Good. The US, which has previously sought to limit use of certain web services in countries under US sanctions, including social networking sites, has just figured out that oh, the people who use those sites are mostly the opposition folks we want to help. So Iran, Sudan, and (outside our area) Cuba can now have access again. Way back in May of ought-nine I noted how stupid banning free communication was, when Microsoft Messenger had to cut several countries due to their being on various sanctions lists.

Our government can be pretty dense sometimes, but this time they came around. Free interchange of ideas is our agenda, so don't punish totalitarian states by shutting down their access. It's as if in the Cold War we'd said, "You guys are Communists, so as a punishment we aren't going to let you listen to Radio Free Europe."

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Umm . . . This Probably Wasn't a Good Idea

Now, I don't judge others for their politics, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or much else, but rank stupidity that verges on the suicidal might be reason for passing judgment. If you live in a Kingdom that has a Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (the Hay'a or Commission in popular parlance), with a pervasive religious police (the mutawa‘in) , it just might not be the smartest move in the world to post a YouTube video in which you're wearing a police uniform and making gay advances.

The YouTube auteur in question is, according to that Arab News link, under arrest, charged with homosexuality, impersonating a police officer, and something called "general security," which I think is Saudi bureaucratese for "just because." Even countries without laws against the other two tend to frown on impersonating an officer.

Now a person's sexual preferences are their private business, but, uh, making a video in a Saudi police uniform and posting it to YouTube? I mean, there's self-expression, and I've defended plenty of bloggers and others who've been arrested for self-expression, but, hey, guy, have you not noticed you're living in Saudi Arabia, or what? This is Darwin Awards territory. Here's an LA Times comment on it. Of course they shouldn't arrest him for a stupid but seemingly harmless prank, but is he really that naive? (I'm assuming there's not some deeper story here than Arab News is telling us, and impersonating a police officer seems to have gilded the lily, as it were.)

Do These Remind You of Anything?

I've been cribbing a lot lately from Issandr El Amrani at The Arabist, but he finds a lot of great stuff, especially on Egypt. He's been mining the ElBaradei Facebook sites for political art and has a post called "ElBaradei Fan Art". There's something distinctly familiar about these two:

Hey, it worked once . . .

Joe Biden: "This is Starting to Get Serious for Us"

If this story (via Laura Rozen from Yediot Aharanot) is true, Joe Biden was a lot more pointed with Netanyahu than his public response to Israel's provocative act on his arrival:

People who heard what Biden said were stunned. “This is starting to get dangerous for us,” Biden castigated his interlocutors. “What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace.”

The vice president told his Israeli hosts that since many people in the Muslim world perceived a connection between Israel’s actions and US policy, any decision about construction that undermines Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem could have an impact on the personal safety of American troops fighting against Islamic terrorism.

David Kimche Dies at 82

Another obituary though I'm a day late: David Kimche, former Deputy Director of Mossad and later Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, has died at age 82. Another writeup here. He had a long career, but as obituaries often do, his role in the Iran-contra scandal is what is being emphasized.

As a footnote, his late brother Jon Kimche (d. 1994) was a UK-based journalist and author who wrote many books on the Middle East.

Coins versus Bills:The Egyptian Case

The US has tried for years to persuade Americans to use a one dollar coin, which lasts much longer than a paper bill, with little success. Not since silver dollars made of real silver went out of circulation have Americans wanted to use a dollar coin. In my own day I can remember the Eisenhower dollar, the Susan B. Anthony dollar, the Sacagawea dollar, and currently, the Presidential series of dollar coins, of which in the two or three years it's been coming out, I've encountered three.

The only way Americans will accept dollar coins is if they stop printing dollar bills, and in a democracy where people vote for all sorts of niche issues, banning the bills — as our Canadian and British cousins did when they introduced dollar and pound coins — just isn't in the cards. (The first time I went to the UK after the pound coin came in, I think I was tipping with them for days thinking they were 50p coins. The establishments presumably thought I was a big tipper.)

Well, here's an article at Bikya Masr on the same phenomenon in Egypt. One pound and one-and-a-half pound coins were not only rejected by customers in favor of paper, but also by shopkeepers, taxi drivers, etc. (Change has always been a problem in Egypt: ma fish fakka — there's no change — is the plea of many a taxi driver.) When I first went to Egypt in 1972, the smallest coin was the ta‘rifa, or half a piaster, but in those days the pound was a fair amount of money. Today, half a piaster would make no sense, as it wouldn't buy anything at all.

Now, they're minting the coins but not printing the bills. An authoritarian government like Egypt or even a rather paternalistic state like the UK or Canada can pull that off, but I still doubt that you'll see Americans do it any time soon. We're too contrarian, and the politician who stops printing dollar bills is dissing George Washington, of all people. Americans like their dollar bills.

Anybody want a Sacagawea dollar?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Random Thought About Tantawi's Death

I was just reading my own post about Sheikh Tantawi's death from earlier today, and was suddenly struck by the fact that he died at age 81.

Given the growing debates over a Mubarak succession, etc., I wonder if Egyptians will be struck, as I belatedly was, by the potential mortality of any other prominent 81-year old figures?

The Sheikh al-Azhar Dies

Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar and Egypt's senior cleric, has died at age 81 in Riyadh airport of a heart attack. He has headed Al-Azhar since 1996.

UPDATE: The Arabist offers his assessment of the man.

The National on Remembering Wilfred Thesiger: One of those "Desert-Loving English"

"I think you are another of these desert-loving English: Doughty, Stanhope, Gordon of Khartoum. No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees, there is nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing."

— Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) to T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia
A piece in The National on remembering Wilfred Thesiger, interviewing his biographer. Thesiger, the explorer of the Empty Quarter, was one of the last (at least in the old mold) of those desert-loving Englishmen.

It's telling that apparently Thesiger didn't like Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Oman when he returned to them in the 1970s. The old breed of explorer wanted to keep the quaintness and backwardness that had attracted them in the first place.

I never met Thesiger (though I know some who did), though he didn't die until 2003, or St. John Philby, or some of the other old Arabian hands. I have Arabian Sands on some shelf somewhere, and The Marsh Arabs too I think.

By most accounts Thesiger, like other desert-loving Englishmen, was eccentric to say the least, even reclusive when in civilization. But eccentricity, besides being valued by the English more than by most cultures (see the works of the esteemed anthropologist P.G. Wodehouse), seems to go with the attraction of the desert. Have you ever read Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta, which he tried to write in Spencerian English and who otherwise is mainly known for an epic poem, The Dawn in Britain, in Spencerian English of course though no one but his biographers has read it; or Palgrave, who traveled in Muslim disguise in Arabia though he was a Jesuit at the time (he later left the order, got married, and became a British diplomat). As for Lawrence and Gordon, well, even their greatest admirers admit to their idiosyncratic behavior: Lawrence's penchant for anonymity after the war while writing books that gained him fame; Gordon's religious attitudes which were, ah, very odd indeed (don't ever try to read his theories on Jerusalem unless you're particularly fond of folks who live in alternate worlds) . . . while the one woman in Prince Feisal's quote above, Lady Hester Stanhope, was mad as a loon. Sometimes called "the mad nun of Lebanon," she survived in part because of the Arab folk tradition that someone who is majnun, "crazy," is possessed by a jinni (genie; the plural is jinn); the words have the same root.

Simpler perhaps to say that the "desert-loving English" tend to be a bit dotty (or a bit Doughty — sorry) in their own way, though their ways may differ.

But the remembrance of Thesiger is a reminder of an earlier day, and the particular sort of Brit who was drawn to the Middle East in its "unspoiled" days but regrets Dubai's skyline no end. And it's also a reminder of how recent the days of exploration were: Thesiger did most of his in the 1940s and 1950s. As late as the 1960s Oman was largely known only to explorers and seconded British officers; Yemen was still a mystery to most of the world; Dubai's main commerce was gold smuggling and Abu Dhabi was a small port town.

Of a later generation and a Brit of less eccentric nature (though still eccentric enough for the British taste), I've posted before about my one meeting with J.B. Kelly.

UPDATED: I just called J.B. Kelly a Brit. He was, as I noted correctly at the linked post, a Kiwi by birth and upbringing, but British-educated and spent most of his career (save for some US years) in the UK. My apologies to any New Zealand readers, unless they don't want to claim him.

Facebook and Middle Eastern Politics

Riffing on the ElBaradei phenomenon, The Arabist contemplates the role of Facebook and Middle Eastern politics. After a period of light posting, he seems to be on a roll lately, and I'm glad to point my readers his way.

It's easy to overstate Facebook's clout: last April the 6 April movement's huge Facebook following led people to expect a major street confrontation in Cairo, but the result was a large police presence and a massive fizzle; ElBaradei's huge Facebook following may be just as ephemeral: but it does show that young Egyptians prosperous enough to have Internet access support reform more than the regime. It tells us nothing about the fellahin. Anyway, read his piece.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Ramat Shlomo: or "In your Eye, Joe Biden!"

You could almost start to believe that the Netanyahu Government is not trying to win favor with the Obama Administration.

With US efforts to start new proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority seemingly within sight of at least limited success, and with Vice President Joe Biden visiting Israel, Israel approved 1600 new housing units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood of Jerusalem. Biden actually used the word "condemn" in describing the decision. Biden's mouth gets the better of him sometimes, but that's an unusually strong word for a senior US official with a foreign policy background to use against Israel. Unusually strong, but nonetheless appropriate.

Yes, Israel insists it has the right to build in all parts of Jerusalem, but the timing here looks like a blatant "in your eye, Joe" to the Vice President, and it sounds like he took it that way.

Ramat Shlomo is itself a fairly new neighborhood in north Jerusalem that lies just west of the Arab neighborhoods of Shu‘afat and Beit Hanina, not far from the Shu‘afat refugee camp. What's more, Harat Shlomo is an ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) neighborhood. It's east of the Green Line of course and not far from the East Jerusalem to Ramallah road.

Say what you will about the future of Jerusalem, this really looks like a deliberate affront to Biden. He seems to have taken it as such. It's as if, "where could we approve new construction that would be the most offensive to the US right now?"

There are a very large number of Israelis who deplore this sort of "diplomacy," of course, but it seems to be taking hold of this government to an unusual degree. I worry that someday we will see the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 as the moment when Israel began a descent into a policy of undermining its own interests and its own security.

‘Abdel Moun‘eim Riyad and Egyptian Martyr's Day

Zeinobia at Egyptian Chronicles reminds us that March 9 is Egyptian Martyr's Day, marking the death of Egyptian Chief of Staff General ‘Abdel Moun‘eim Riyad, who was killed on the Suez Front during the War of Attrition along the Canal on this date in 1969.

She also provides a valuable link to a technical military study of the man by Youssef Abul-Enein from Infantry magazine in 2004: "Egyptian General Abdel-Moneim Riad: the Creation of an Adaptive Military Thinker."

I haven't read all of it yet but it certainly portrays a man quite different from his predecessor, ‘Abd al-Hakim ‘Amr, who presided over the disaster of 1967; Riad I suspect deserves some of the credit for the successes achieved in the crossing of the Canal in 1973, though he didn't live to see it. He has streets and squares and stuff named for him, of course.

More Bagpipes

Since Middle Eastern bagpipes have come up a number of times, someone called my attention to this BBC sound-and-slideshow presentation of Palestinian pipers.

Foreign Policy and NAF Launch Their Middle East Channel

Foreign Policy's increasingly populous website has launched their new Middle East Channel. The background on it is here. Marc Lynch edits it along with Amjad Atallah and Daniel Levy from the New America Foundation, and so far it looks extremely promising.

Monday, March 8, 2010


From The Arabist, Babaradei:

More Camel Ephemera (and Links to Camel Cheesecake)

I'm sorry, it's like an entry drug leading you on to the harder stuff. Once you start posting occasionally about camel beauty contests, your readers get hooked and start sending you still more camel cheesecake.

Since my readers seem to like this stuff, enjoy Hakima at the link. (Safe for work unless your boss is a camel.)

It also reminds me of the fact that one of this country's finest Middle East Specialists, Richard W. Bulliet, of Columbia and former head of their Middle East Institute (not to be confused with the one I work for), author of the scholarly study The Camel and the Wheel, which I still consider a landmark work of history and anthropology, once wrote, under a pen name, a mystery novel (which I sadly have never read) called Kicked to Death By a Camel. Since Dick lists it on his online CV I assume he won't mind my noting the fact.

And of course every first year Arabic student hears the old saw that every Arabic root has four meanings: 1) its normal meaning; 2) the exact opposite of its normal meaning; 3) a meaning relating to sex; and 4) a meaning relating to camels. It's an exaggeration, but not completely off base. Once while trying to decipher a medieval text for my doctoral dissertation, I found the root I was looking up had, among its many meanings, "crack in the skin under the armpit of a camel."

Beat that, you proverbial Eskimos with your alleged (insert large number here) words for snow.

The Iraqi Elections: Now We Wait

Despite a number of bomb attacks, Iraqis appear to have turned out pretty well and the elections seem to have been a sign of increasing normal life. And the media got a whole lot more pictures of people holding up fingers dipped in purple ink.

That the elections took place is encouraging, reassuring, and somewhat invigorating for those who think democracy is not in fact alien to the Middle East.

On the flip side, though, how the Parliament is configured and how long it takes to get a Prime Minister will be the real story. I'll comment more when we have clearer results. It's going to be a rough week on the day job and I will post when I can.

One comment on a lighter note: Although early estimates suggest Prime Minister al-Maliki's State of Law Alliance is doing very well in the Shi‘ite majority regions, I do wish someone would tell him and his alliance that every time they use the acronym "SOL" to refer to themselves, they may be evoking a contrary message among some colloquial English (or American at least) speakers.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Mubarak has Gall Bladder Surgery

Husni Mubarak, why won't you let me have Saturdays off?

Actually, I'm just dropping in to note that Mubarak had gall bladder surgery today in Heidelberg after experiencing pain while on a visit to Germany. Apparently all went well but he may stay there all week: Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif has assumed the Presidential powers in his absence, there being no Vice President.

The above link was to BBC; here's Al Jazeera English.

As for the Iraqi elections, I've let the experts do the prognosticating; I'll say my piece when the results are in.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Weekend Links, Shamelessly Borrowed from The Arabist

I'm outta here for the weekend, and was busy today and tonight, but The Arabist dropped a whole lot of link dumps today and you may want to follow them; one of Algerian links (the merguez picture is a nice touch), though I've already linked to two of the articles he mentions; another on the whole Mabhouh/Mossad/Dubai soap opera; a big roundup of general links; and a whole bunch of Egypt updates.

While you're over there, see Ursula Lindsey's post on "Where is Cairo headed?", which samples her longer version for The Review at The National called "And then Cairo Turned Itself Inside Out."

And another item, this one not stolen from The Arabist, but also from The Nstional: "Was Mabhouh betrayed by someone inside Hamas?"

I thank Issandr for saving me work, and hope those links hold you for the weekend.

Algerian Succession Struggles?

I know I cited The Moor Next Door just last night, but here's another good recent post on the murky power struggle for succession in Algeria, in the wake of the assassination of ‘Ali Tounsi. I commend it to you.

Mubarak's First Comments on ElBaradei

Husni Mubarak is in Germany to meet with the leadership and undergo medical treatment (gall bladder pain, I gather, is the official explanation). Being in country where people can actually ask the questions they want to, he's made his first comments on the ElBaradei phenomenon. He's free to join any political party and run for the Presidency (except for the fact that only parties with five percent of the seats in parliament can run candidates, and no one but the Muslim Brotherhood and the NDP qualifies, and Catch 22: the Muslim Brotherhood is not a party) or he can run as an independent (if he can get a petition from several hundred members of Parliament, local councils, etc., who are almost all NDP).

Oh yes, and Mubarak said ElBaradei is not a national hero, and added, "We don't need a national hero."

Okay. I guess that clears that up. He's free to run, except that he's not eligible. And despite being one of Egypt's most prominent figures on the interntional stage, he's not a national hero.

Now, I wouldn't have used the word "hero" myself: he's been the senior bureaucrat of an international bureaucracy, he's not Superman. But Mubarak's remarks seem a bit misleading: he doesn't really expect people to believe ElBaradei is "welcome" to run, does he?

I hate to say it, but I think Mubarak just gave the ElBaradei phenomenon a useful boost. Not that it change the likely outcome. But with Elaradei in the picture, if something were to happen to the President — just gall bladder pain? Are you sure — there could be some major shifts in the odds, like when you ignore the GPS and it says, "recalculating."

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Algerian Political Art and Imagery

The Moor Next Door has a rather interesting photo essay on "The Face of the People: As the [Algerian] Regime Describes Itself," illustrating propaganda posters and official photographs from the independence era to Bouteflika. It would be interesting to see something similar on eastern Arab countries. It's interesting that the early stuff is clearly influenced by Soviet/Chinese/Cuban socialist propaganda styles, yet one of the paintings is of (rebel fighters?) at prayer.


Congratulations to master Lebanon blogger Elias Muhanna (Qifa Nabki) on a new daughter.

Another Twist in the Dubai Tale: Some Pertinent Questions

The Dubai investigation goes on. Here, from Gulf News, is a new twist: the role, or possible role, of Yuval Tal, Israeli entrepreneur whose Payoneer service is mixed up in the credit card side of the plot Ex-IDF, apparently a guy who bragged about his IDF exploits.

In general, when I hear of somebody bragging about their military exploits, I assume real covert operators would avoid them like the plague. But who knows? Maybe they used his services without his knowledge; maybe they didn't mind exposing him; maybe it's all bogus. But the Dubai authorities are not just screaming "Zionist plot!": they're documenting the links.

If the story linked above is correct, this guy doesn't sound like a reliable (from operational security viewpoints) asset for a covert operation. But I'm starting to wonder if this operation was supposed to be transparent, and obvious, with a big "F*** You, signed Mossad" or rather, "we can hit you, leave fingerprints and calling cards and appear on all your cameras and all over YouTube and still get our man, get away, and laugh at you"? Mossad has tripped over its own feet much more frequently than its admirers like to admit, but this was so obvious and thoroughly documented that one wonders if it was really intended to remain covert, or if the whole point was intended to be obvious.

If that were the case, then the question is what was the real motive of the hit?: was it to get the target (presumably at least part of the motive); or to proclaim Mossad's invincibility and omnipresence; or perhaps, to genuinely embarrass a country that has always had a softer line toward Israel than most Gulf states? Why do it in Dubai? Didn't Mabhouh ever go to Beirut or Damascus where Israel operates with less restraint? Was this deliberately intended to undermine the limited links already existing between Israel and the UAE?

And if so, why? Can anyone have thought that this would not become the center of attention? Or was that the intention?

And if it was a deliberate provocation — I'm not convinced of this but I'm trying to figure it out — was it a rogue act by Mossad chief Meir Dagan? It's not like it would embarrass the Foreign Ministry, as it presumably would if anyone but Avigdor Lieberman was the chief of diplomacy, but it still seems that if this many fingerprints were left behind, either Mossad has gotten sloppy, or someone was deliberately sending a message. That makes me think it goes higher than Dagan, and was a decision of state.

Of course, I can't prove that Israel did it, but if someone else did, they sure knew how to leave Israeli fingerprints all over the crime scene.

I've been around the track a few times and have spent decades dealing with the Middle East, so I'm not exactly naive when it comes to these sorts of shadow war operations. The real stuff is usually nasty and not usually limited to one side. It's a game fought in the shadows and it's usually rather grittier and less defined than some of the old Eric Ambler Istanbul/World War II stories; I think some of David Ignatius' novels might come closer. Four or five people I knew personally, maybe more, have died in those shadows, most of them not part of the game. (AUB President Malcolm Kerr and AUB Professor Leigh Douglas are two I can name without hesitation, both killed in Lebanon.)

So I'm not naive. But there's still something wrong with this story. Either Mossad's operational security has gone south with a vengeance, or they wanted all this publicity.

I won't, at the moment, speculate on why, if that is indeed what happened.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

ElBaradei's Constitutional Suggestions

I know that this blog, like a lot of blogs that focus regularly on Egypt, has been rather heavy invested in the ElBaradei story lately. Don't mistake me: I'm not endorsing or rooting for ElBaradei or anyone else, nor have I any profound animus against either the elder or younger Mubarak: I'm not an Egyptian, and I've got no voice. I would like to see the many Egyptians who also feel they have no voice find one, but I have no idea if they'd choose ElBaradei. The Muslim Brotherhood might be a contender: not mine to judge. I'm just analyzing an interesting dynamic. But for reasons noted in earlier posts and links ElBaradei has painted the regime into a corner it's not at all sure about. But I still can't see how we get from where we are to where he could have a chance to run.

Well, he and his new National Coalition for Change have listed the seven conditions under which he would run. As I think I've noted before, there's a certain amount of, well, for want of an Arabic term that comes immediately to mind, chutzpah involved when you're lecturing the incumbent who controls the state on the conditions under which you will condescend to run against him. But since that December post linked to above, ElBaradei has played a very interesting game.

The conditions are: 1) lifting the Emergency Law; 2) reinstating judicial supervision of elections; 3) local and international NGOs monitoring the elections; 4) equal media coverage for all candidates; 5) right to vote for Egyptians living abroad; 6) revisions of Articles 76, 77 and 88 of the Constitution which place draconian limitations on the ability of independents to run for President; 7) and a two term limit on the President.

Every single demand has been made before by dissidents, protesters, opposition parties, civil society advocates, human rights activists, etcetera. It's not new. But ElBaradei is not some academic or activist, but a well-known international figure.

But how does he persuade/compel a regime that disdains him at the moment (much as they loved him when an Egyptian headed the IAEA) to change its fundamental rules?

It's still early. If for example, Husni Mubarak passed from the scene from natural causes (or any other way) before the end of his fifth term, the succession could really be thrown open. For whatever reason, Husni has not placed Gamal in an inevitable succession position, such as making him a Vice President of the senior official of the ruling party. Why not is anyone's guess. A leadership vacuum before 2011 could throw the whole thing open, especially if the military and security services are not invested in Gamal (which is debatable at best).

On the other hand, when ElBaradei and friends give a list of conditions under which they must might run against a Mubarak, it's hard not to wonder if the proper metaphor is "the dogs bark, but the caravan moves on."

On the other hand, this is a new game, a new dynamic. I'm pretty sure the regime doesn't understand it and I'm starting to wonder if ElBaradei does, or is simply making it up as he goes along, one step at a time.

For a fleeting moment I thought of all the opposition figures making their pilgrimage to ElBaradei's villa and was reminded of all the Iranian figures who made their way to Imam Khomeini in Paris in the last days of the Shah.

But then I recognized all the differences: the Pahlavis by then were a lot less entrenched than the Egyptian establishment (the military and security services, business community, ruling party) even if the Mubaraks were removed from the stage. ElBaradei is a famous and respected Egyptian but nobody much knows what his positions are on (non-nuclear) issues. Khomeini was a senior ayatollah in the most clerical societal tradition in the Muslim world; ElBaradei's a bureaucrat.

Still, this is interesting to watch. Something is stirring, and an unexpected development (which can happen with octogenarian leaders) could shift the equation quickly.