A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Raid

What a mess. I have been really busy with Memorial Day activities etc. and said I wouldn't post unless something happened. Well, obviously, Something Happened.

I know the Israeli government and Israel's good friends everywhere are defending the raid on the aid flotilla, and noting that activists on the ship were beating Israeli commandos with iron rods and so on. But when a high-profile effort (yes, a publicity stunt and propaganda ploy) ends with nine dead, some or all of them civilians, in international waters, Israel gets another black eye. It could also find itself subject to sanctions against its merchant marine, if I'm not mistaken.

Before I offer my early take please take note of Gideon Levy's column in tomorrow morning's Ha'aretz. He's tougher than I will be.

A week or so ago my wife and I watched the DVD of the movie Thirteen Days, the movie made a few years back about the Cuban Missile Crisis. I then reread a few chapters in some of the classic works on that crisis, which marked a very vivid experience of my early high school years. The US was claiming some of the same rights Israel is claiming — the right to a "quarantine" of Cuba in international waters, and inspection of ships crossing a quarantine line — but managed it without a shot being fired or a casualty suffered, save for the U-2 pilot shot down over Cuba. It was handled with finesse.

This was not. I don't know what the rules of engagement were — did the Israelis use traditional naval challenges like a shot across the bow before trying to board from a helicopter? — but the tactics seem closer to what you'd use to retake a ship held by Somali pirates than an international civilian mission. And since they'd insisted they would enforce their blockade of Gaza, why not wait until the flotilla reached territorial waters? Enforcing a blockade in international waters is real dicy in international law. It's one reason why the US called its blockade of Cuba in 1962 a "quarantine," since "blockade" would have been an act of war, and in the US Civil War the Union Blockade of the Confederacy was portrayed by Lincoln as the US "closing" its own ports, not as a blockade of a state (which would have recognized the Confederacy).

I'd also like to know who was in charge. The fact that Netanyahu had to cancel his visit to Washington makes me think he didn't expect this result. Was it the Defense Minister (Ehud Barak), the IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Navy Commander Vice Admiral Eliezer Marom (who's a quarter Chinese, as I've noted before), or the commander on the scene, who chose the tactics? (And of course, given the mess it's created, somebody may take the fall, but that may not tell us who really made the call.) The Navy is the junior service in the IDF, and its experience is limited. Perhaps that's part of this, but if so, Israel might do well to admit it screwed up.

Israel is scrambling to defend the results, but diplomatically this is a disaster. Militarily it accomplished nothing that I can see. From a PR point of view, well, what can I say?

Netanyahu, so far, seems to be hanging tough and defending everything. I think it would have been better for him (and I'm sure it would have been better for Israel) if he'd flown home announcing he was going to find out who was responsible for this disaster. But he didn't.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Holiday Weekend

I find I haven't quite got my thoughts together on the National Security Strategy, so for now I'll leave you with the think tanks and bloggers on the subject I linked to yesterday.

In the US it's the three-day Labor Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start to summer, and I probably won't be blogging unless something major occurs. (Oops: I almost closed out the summer before it started.)

Breaking: Rahm Emanuel is Human, Jewish. Israel Marvels.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (whose father was an old Irgun fighter) was in Israel for his son's Bar Mitzvah and was seen, at the Western Wall, shedding a tear as his son prayed.

Now, a man whose father fought for Israeli independence and who is accompanying his son to Israel for Bar Mitzvah would, it would seem, have a perfect right to tear up a bit at the Kotel. (The Jerusalem Post's version is here, and here's an account of how a right-wing activist sought to block the Bar Mitzvah.)

But he and family had already been heckled (to the point of the hecklers being held by police) in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City after they called him an "Anti-Semite" and "Israel hater." He also visited the Aish HaTorah Yeshiva, a controversial movement that promotes Jewish Orthodoxy but has also been accused of propaganda.

Many Israelis who oppose the Obama Administration have tended to focus on Emanuel's role because of his background. But most of his concerns involve domestic policy, and this is a personal trip for a very personal reason.

To Rahm Emanuel: glad you can show emotion despite your reputation. To his son Zach, celebrating Bar Mitzvah, mazel tov. To everybody else, turn the cameras off and shut up. This isn't a policy issue, or an Israeli issue, it's a Jewish issue. And a very personal one. Like Queen Elizabeth I, I seek no windows into men's souls. Rahm Emanuel's policy positions are well within the Israeli political spectrum, and he's no anti-Semite. But as a father, I know there are red zones, and they involve your kids. Don't go there, whatever you think of Emanuel or his policies. Let his son become a man at Judaism's holiest site. And again, mazel tov.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The New National Security Strategy

The new version of The National Security Strategy of the United States 2010 (link is to the PDF on the White House website) was previewed at the Brookings Institution today and has been written up in the press; (NYT here) (WaPo here). I plan to post my own comments, probably tomorrow, after a more careful read. Meanwhile, here are some early takes:

Secetary of State Hillary Clinton's presentation of the document at Brookings.

Brookings responses: Bruce Jones, Michael O'Hanlon, and Bruce Riedel offer their responses.

Around the other think tanks and blogs: Marc Lynch on Al-Qa‘ida in the NSS; Andrew Exum's comments here; plus this release containing comments from the whole range of experts at CNAS.

More from me later or tomorrow.

Belgian Tourist Stabbed in Aswan

For the first time in years, outside of Sinai, [well, I'm accurate about the "stabbed" part, but forgot the February 2009 bombing near Sayyidna Hussein in Cairo] a tourist has been stabbed in Egypt, a Belgian tourist in Aswan. Details are sparse. (I have no idea why the website story is illustrated with a picture of Abu Simbel, which is not in Aswan.) (On second thought, they moved Abu Simbel once, and since I haven't been there lately, perhaps . . . nah.)

Outside of terrorist bombings in Sharm al-Sheikh, Dhahab, and other sites on the "Sinai Riveira" (easy targets since many of the tourists are Israeli and the attackers have the Sinai to fall back into), attacks on tourists have been rare since the 1990s, particularly the attack on the Deir al-Bahri temple at Luxor in 1997, though there have been a handful of incidents in Cairo and elsewhere. And this may turn out to just be a robbery or something, but it's the first in a while in the Nile Valley.

IDF/Settler Violence Escalating

Tension between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and settlers in the northern West Bank settlement of Yitzhar is escalating, according to this Ha'aretz story. Yitzhar is an Orthodox Jewish settlement near Nablus, and is the home of radical rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, who has supported attacks on Palestinians and was arrested earlier this year for alleged involvement in torching a mosque.

The more extreme wing of the settler movement is increasingly rafdicsl snd violent and, now, apparently, willing to take on the IDF itself.

Iraqi Airways to be Liquidated

This story's from yesterday but I'm just getting to it. Iraqi Airways is being declared bankrupt and will be wound down, though it may take up to three years to do so. It is going belly up because of Kuwaiti efforts to seize aircraft at European airports in compensation for Kuwaiti claims for equipment stolen by Iraq during the occupation of Kuwait in 1990-91. The BBC version is here and Al Jazeera English is here.

I'm no lawyer but it does seem a little unfair that an elected, Shi‘ite dominated government is paying the price for Saddam Hussein's depredations nearly 20 years ago. But yes, I know, the Federal Republic of Germany paid reparations for Nazi actions, and there are plenty of other precedents. And I'm sure Iraqi Airways has other problems besides the Kuwaiti claims: it only just started flying to London again for the first time in 20 years, and tourism is presumably not exactly booming.

I only few Iraqi Airways once (well, twice, two legs of the same trip) so I've got no huge nostalgtia factor at work here. But it's a reminder that for all its other problems, Iraq still has the legacy of Kuwaiti reparations to deal with.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

If You Haven't Finalized Your Summer Vacation Plans Yet . . .

. . . You might want to consider Hizbullah's new "tourist complex" and war museum displaying its own weapons and those captured from Israel. It was introduced on the eve of yesterday's 10th anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon and is being promoted as a "war museum" of Hizbullah's accomplishments. Another account is here. It's in Mlita, South Lebanon.

While devotees of heavy weaponry may well be tempted to go just on that score, there's plenty of tourist hype available to promote the site:
Mlita is not only a museum displaying the Resistance’s heavy weapons and those left by the Israeli enemy, to mark the tenth anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon. It is not only “a modest initiative compared… to the sacrifices and historic victories that have been gained.” It is not only an to preserve the history of resistance through a museum built on the ground of Resistance.” Mlita is even more and more. It is the Resistance in itself.
Whoa, heavy, dude. But if you read the official Al-Manar (Hizbullah TV) account, it gets even heavier, with one person who worked on the site remarking, "This is the new Middle East, the real new Middle East that we have always dreamt of."

Really? Not my dreams. Sorry, I've already made my vacation plans this summer.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Netanyahu Invited to Washington? For Next Tuesday

Ha'aretz is reporting (exclusively, they say) that President Obama has invited Binyamin Netanyahu to come to Washington following his visit to the OECD session in Europe and a previously scheduled visit to Canada. The European visit marks Israel's joining th4e Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

Interesting since lately there's been some pressure in the US for Obama to visit Israel: by inviting Netanyahu he may be emphasizing who's the superpower and who's the client.

I'm posting this tonight rather late since, if it's true, it'll probably be in the US press by morning.

Ten Years Since Israel Left Lebanon

Ten years ago today, in May of 2000, Israel withdrew from its southern Lebanese "security zone," which it had occupied since the 1982 war in Lebanon. It's marked today as a Lebanese holiday, "Resistance and Liberation Day," and Hizbullah has been celebrating.

Sure, there are some lingering issues, such as the Shebaa Farms and Ghajar, and Hizbullah's arms buildup, and tensions are building yet again. But what was once an open-ended occupation did finally end, and during the 2006 war the Israelis actually waited some time after the war began before sending ground troops over the border. They were bled for years in Lebanon, and ultimately withdrew unilaterally.

Facebook Has More Arab Members than All Arab Newspaper Readers Combined

A new report says that Facebook now has 15 million subscribers in the Arab world while all Arab newspapers — in Arabic, French and English combined — sell ony 14 million copies.

That link is to a BBC story. You can find the summary from Spot On Public Relations (a Dubai-based PR firm) here. The full report in PDF is here. (And yes, the PR firm is on Facebook.)

Some of their findings from their website:
MENA’s top five Facebook country markets, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, account for 70% of all users in the region.

50% of MENA Facebook users have selected their primary language for using Facebook as English, with 25% preferring French and just 23% Arabic.

Only 37% of Facebook users in MENA are female (compared with 56% in the USA and 52% in the UK). Only Bahrain and Lebanon Facebook communities approach gender equality with female users accounting for about 44% of total users.

The GCC has five million Facebook users, which Saudi Arabia and the UAE representing 45% and 31% of that total respectively.

North Africa has 7.7 million Facebook users, with Egypt accounting for 3.4 million users (or 44% of all North Africa users). Egypt has the largest Facebook community in MENA.

Francophone countries Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia together account for 3.7 million French speaking Facebook users, equivalent to nearly 25% of all MENA users.

As the BBC report notes, the study doesn't go into just how many of these users are actually choosing to use Facebook: political activism gets a lot of attention but presumably there's a lot of the same kind of social chatter we see in the West; the Middle Easterners I'm linked to on Facebook seem all over the place in what they post.

And of course, if you equate the sale of one copy of a newspaper with its having one reader, you've never been in a Middle Eastern coffeehouse.

Odd Disconnect Between Headline and Photo?

As an editor, I only have to choose four photos a year these days: one for each cover of The Middle East Journal, but having worked in more frequent publications in the past, I'm aware of the danger of having a disconnect between your headline and your photo chosen to illustrate your story. This screen capture from this Ha'aretz story (I'm using a screen cap in case they change the photo or headline) exemplifies the problem:

And then they had a good laugh about it. I know that online reportage requires a lot of quick decisions, but given Ha'aretz' overall political allegiances, I don't think this was intentional.

Monday, May 24, 2010

New Report Claims Israel Offered South Africa Nukes in 1975

There's a lot of attention being paid today to a report in Britain's The Guardian concerning a forthcoming book that claims to reveal documents showing that Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to South Africa in 1975. It's being portrayed as an open admission of Israel's nuclear capability, and of a willingness to proliferate. The original Guardian story can be found here.

Israel, not surprisingly, is denying the story, and indeed there's an ambiguity in the document quoted, which refers to Israel offering to sell Jericho missiles to South Africa with the "correct payload," the latter presumably a euphemism for the nuclear warhead for which the missile was designed, but of course, it doesn't quite say it, leaving some deniability. The Israeli reply and denials are here.

Nuclear and other cooperation between Israel and South Africa was often rumored in the 1970s and 1980s. There is some evidence of cooperation in aircraft development, artillery, and missiles, to cite several examples where South African and Israeli products seem derived from each other. Nuclear cooperation was also rumored in the development of South Africa's bomb. At the time it abandoned its program, it had built six weapons and was working on a seventh, though it had cancelled a possible test under international publicity.

Mystery still surrounds the so-called Vela incident of 1979 in which a Vela satellite detected the double flash typical of a nuclear detonation in the sea south of South Africa. The incident is still debated but many have suspected it was a joint Israeli-South African test, possibly of a tactical nuclear shell from a South African warship.

Israel's continuing policy of ambiguity in admitting its nuclear arsenal, and the obvious explosiveness of revelations concerning its dealings with South Africa in the apartheid era, mean we may never get the full story, but this latest story is likely to bring some of the other stories to the surface again. And I guess I just helped in that.

Is ElBaradei Running for President Everywhere but Egypt?

While I'm citing The National, I'd also note this piece about how Mohamed ElBaradei's "prolonged absences from Egypt" are "confusing" his followers; he's visited the US, Cameroon, and other places, and many of his chief aides have been attending a conference in the US.

This would seem to reinforce the sense that ElBaradei's appeal is to an elite group, perhaps even to expatriates, and may not run too deep at home.

Cypriot Maronite Arabic, Again

The National has a piece on Cypriot Maronite Arabic, the dialect of Arabic which survives among the Maronites of Cyprus. This article quotes local claims that the local Arabic is rooted in Aramaic, which seems doubtful though the Maronite liturgy retains some Aramaic parts.

I posted last year on Cypriot Maronite Arabic, including a video in which some of it is heard, and comments by a linguist. That's probably a bit more reliable on the alleged Aramaic links, but still, the survival of Arabic on Cyprus is a fascinating subtext in its own right.

Friday, May 21, 2010

More Discussion on Arabic

There's yet another article on the need for better quality books and content in Arabic, one of a number we've noted recently, and like many of them, the article is in English.

UPDATED: A commenter links to a post on "The Death of Arabic in Lebanon" which is worth your time and also introduced me to a blog I didn't know. I'll use his link to remember a time I actually heard a Lebanese businessman manage to get three languages into only four words in a phone call: "Pourquois are you za‘lan?" (Why are you angry?)

And speaking of languages, it has been brought to my attention that there was an empty post up with the headline "Worlx" on it earlier today. That's what I get for posting before having coffee; it was just a mistake. Have a good weekend.

World's Richest Heads of State

Via The Gulf Blog, a list of the world's richest heads of state, derived from this article at The Independent, we find some surprises.

No, no Arab monarch tops the list. The King of Thailand is, to my surprise, first. The Sultan of Brunei is second, which is not a surprise: he basically rules an oilfield. Then comes the President of the UAE/Ruler of Abu Dhabi, not surprising in itself but ahead of the King of Saudi Arabia, which did surprise me.

Fifth, however, is Silvio Berlusconi. I knew he was very rich in Italian terms, but didn't know that he was richer than most Gulf monarchs.

The Prince of Liechtenstein is sixth. Huh? Obviously due to Liechtenstein's vast imperial outreach.

Seventh is Qatar, no surprise. Surprised it wasn't higher.

Next they list Asaf Ali Zardari, leader of Pakistan, grieving widower of Benazir Bhutto. There are allegations of corruption. Really?

Ninth is Prince Albert of Monaco, who rakes in the take of Monte Carlo.

Tenth is the President of Chile? What's going on there?

Eleventh, Sultan Qaboos of Oman.

Twelfth, the President of Equatorial Guinea. I think he lists his whole country as an asset.

Thirteenth, is the Queen of England, which shows how the mighty have fallen. The ruler of the UK is not as personally rich as the ruler of Equatorial Guinea, for crying out loud?

The Amir of Kuwait clocks in at 14th. The Ruler of Kuwait is not as rich as the ruler of Equatoral Guinea? Either he hides his assets better or Equatorial Guinea is emerging as a problem.

The rest: 15) Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands; 16) King Mswasi III of Swaziland; 17) Kevin Rudd, PM of Australia (through his wife's inherited wealth); 18) John Key, New Zealand Prime Minister and rich from his previous career (why are the two ANZACs so rich?); 19) Lee Myung-Bak, President of South Korea, who headed Hyundai before politics; and 10)

Okay you guess who number 20 is. If you get it right you might win something if I had any prizes or money!

And the 20th richest head of state is:

The President of Montenegro.
What? I sincerely doubt one American in 1000 knows where Montenegro is. Of Milo Djukanovic , the source reports that "Mysteriously wealthy, he denies allegations that he was involved in a lucrative tobacco smuggling ring."

Pope Receives Female UAE Ambassador

Though I'm Catholic (though I wouldn't want to be interrogated by the Spanish Inquisition on my orthodoxy), I find it very ironic that the new UAE Ambassador to the Vatican (a title which is in itself an interesting concept) is a woman. So far as I know, the Vatican doesn't have any female papal nuncios.

This isn't the first female Ambassador to the Vatican or anything, but it's interesting that this is an Arab Ambassador. The Pope is said to have praised the UAE for its tolerance of Christians. (Well, it is pretty dependent on expatriate labor.) Perhaps the Vatican is immune to the irony, but I'm not.

Israelis and Manners According to an Israeli "Manners Instructor"

Israelis take a certain pride in their abrasiveness. Brusqueness and temperamental reactions are considered a national trait. So much so that native-born Israelis have always taken pride in the term sabra, the Arabic, and now Hebrew, term for the prickly-pear cactus typical of the region, defined in the traditional Israeli definition as "prickly on the outside, sweet on the inside."

At various stages of my career I attended speeches by the late Yitzhak Rabin when he was Ambassador to Washington and press conferences of his when he was Defense Minister and Prime Minister (and met him personally once or twice): Jerusalem-born, he was a classic sabra both in biography and temperament. He had his strengths, but hale-fellow-well-met wasn't one of them.

Now, in our age of social self-awareness, an Israeli "manners instructor" (that's a real job?) asks: "Can Israelis learn to have better manners?"

An excerpt:

Rules about table manners are, whether for the adults or children, a very important chapter: "Eat slowly and with your mouth closed, elbows should be kept close to the body, say 'please' and 'thank you' and never use a toothpick while at the table - this is terribly ugly," she advises.

All her criticisms notwithstanding, she also sees many good things about her countrymen. A positive example of good behavior and demeanor, especially on the international stage, is that of President Shimon Peres.

"Oh, he is wonderful!" Lancut Leibovitz enthuses. "I wish we had more of his kind."
We all do, but Peres was born in what's now Belarus 86 years ago, and therefore is one of the last of the European-born leadership (unless you count Avigdor Lieberman, also Belarussian but a far different man). He's no sabra.

Which, of course, gives me the opportunity to note that Shimon Peres is a first cousin of Lauren Bacall. I'll bet you didn't know that, unless you're Israeli or a longtime student of Israel. I cannot, however, picture him in Key Largo.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Qifa Nabki on Miss USA

Whenever something rather absurd involving Lebanon transpires (which is to say, fairly often), blogger Qifa Nabki — who most of the time is a fairly serious analyst — puts on his satirical cap, and he's usually quite good. While my own take on the right-wing alarm over the new Miss USA being labeled a Hizbullah mole was, I hope, suitably tongue-in-cheek, he tops me quite easily with a wonderful play on Rimah Fakih's name. Her surname — Fakih, but properly Faqih — means a religious jurist, and the principle Imam Khomeini imposed for the governance of the Islamic Republic is called velayet-e faqih (Arabic, wilayat al-faqih), and she's a Lebanese Shi‘ite. So Qifa spins it as "Heterodox Feminist Millenarian Group Pins Hopes for Armageddon on Miss USA Win." [Sorry. Had wrong link for some days. Now fixed.] It's absurd, but funnier than I was. And I think many male Mideast bloggers are probably paying so much attention because we so rarely have a valid excuse to link to cheesecake swimsuit pictures on Middle East blogs.

Mubarak: "Only God Knows" His Successor

Husni Mubarak has been on a whirlwind European tour this week and was in Italy today, and during a press conference he was asked about the succession:

"Who knows? Who knows? Only God knows who will be my successor," Mubarak said in English when he was asked who would prefer as a successor.

When the reporter repeated his question, Mubarak pointed to the sky and replied: "Whoever God prefers, I prefer."

It doesn't add much to our understanding of his intentions, but it does remind him that this question will not be going away soon.

Migration and the Maghreb

MEI has another in its Viewpoints series up, entitled Migration and the Maghreb, bringing together nine essays on the subject. The link above goes to the descriptive page; the full report in .pdf can be found here.

Earlier reports dealt with Migration in the Mashreq and Migration in the Gulf.

Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance Uproots Muslim Cemetery. No, Really.

This has been around for a couple of days — well, the basic story's been going on for years — and you may have already seen it, but Ha'aretz has run an investigative series on how the new Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem dealt with unearthing 1000 or so bodies from the city's oldest Muslim cemetery. No, this is not a story in The Onion, but it does have a 1984 "Freedom is Slavery" feel to it: the Museum of Tolerance, funded by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, is uprooting an ancient Muslim cemetery. (I guess they didn't mean that kind of tolerance.)

On the positive side, this has been investigated by an Israeli newspaper and has stirred up controversy in Israel. And the linked page above not only links to all three parts of the investigative report, but also includes the Simon Wiesenthal Center's official response.

Now, bones are a big deal in Jerusalem. Ever since the Prophet Ezekiel had his vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, I suppose. Most of the time, it's the haredi or ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups who are trying to block archaeologist's digs, since they fear disturbing Jewish graves. Archaeology is highly political, not just in Jerusalem, but all over the Holy Land. This time, Israel's indigenous Islamic Movement (based among Israeli Arabs in Galilee and other parts of northern Israel) was the source of protest.

Rescue archaeology is also a loaded subject, since by definition rescue digs are done under the gun: they must be finished before the construction begins; in this case, the rescue archaeology occupied five months. The Ha'aretz articles raise questions about its professionalism; I wasn't there, so judge the articles as you will.

If you know Jerusalem at all you probably know the area known as the Mamilla. Much of it is Independence (Ha-Atzma'ut) Park. A lot of stuff is nearby: the US Consulate for West Jerusalem, the Beit Agron, Jerusalem's version of Washington's National Press Club (well, but very different in feel), etc. are clustered around Mamilla. One corner where there is a parking lot (confession: I've parked in that lot, not knowing it was on an ancient cemetery) is now under development for the museum.

As the Ha'aretz article notes, the museum itself is controversial since it's essentially an American-based enterprise and the folks at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem's memorial to the Holocaust, thought they were doing a good enough job promoting tolerance.

It is, in many ways, a typical Jerusalem controversy, but the Ha'aretz exposé has drawn renewed attention to a battle that's been going on for years. And of course there's that "Museum of Tolerance Uproots Cemetery" angle that adds to the ironies. And now, it appears the Islamic Movement is reviving its activism in the wake of the exposé.

Dubai Bumper Cars

The National links to a video and writes about the phenomenon of outrageous driving on Sheikh Zayed Road. The article offers all the official deplorings. The video is going to reinforce every stereotype of Arab driving anyone has ever harbored. But I have to wonder: is some of this staged? It really is hard to picture this going on for any period of time without law enforcement showing up:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Gary Sick on US Response to Iran

Gary Sick weighs in on the US sanctions move as a response to the Iran/Turkey/Brazil initiative: "Giving the Finger to Iran (and Turkey and . . .)"

Read it all, but here are some of the points:
The Iranian hardliners had already begun asking questions about the deal, fearful that Iran had given away too much. Now they don’t have to worry since everyone knows that Iran will never be willing or able to negotiate under the threat of sanctions.

For the Revolutionary Guards it is a huge bonus. As foreign companies are driven away, the Guards progressively take over more and more of the economy. And as restrictions on trade grow, so do their opportunities to manage the immensely profitable smuggling routes. Like their American counterparts, but for different reasons, they thrive on an environment of threat and isolation.

The presidents of Turkey and Brazil have been humiliated. But the Great Powers are confident that their lesser cousins know their place and will show deference when the chips are down. They’ll do what they have to do. They always do.

Don’t they… ?
But do read it all.

Bahrain Bars Al-Jazeera

Bahrain has barred an Al-Jazeera team from entering the country, accusing the channel of a "breach of media norms," apparently in part due to a report on poverty in Bahrain. The report also speaks of a need for a reciprocity agreement between Bahrain and Qatar over media, so in part this may also reflect the traditional rivalry between the two countries.

Al-Jazeera, of course, has managed to offend practically every Arab country (other than its host Qatar) at one time or another.

India, China Stepping Up Training in Afghanistan?

An interesting piece in The National datelined New Delhi and indicating that India and China are both looking at increasing their training presence in Afghanistan, looking towards the day the US withdraws.

India has, of course, long had an involvement in Afghanistan, usually either covert or at least mostly under-the-radar, since it clearly sees a need to offset Pakistani influence in the country. China is a bit less obvious, but it is certainly concerned with the role the Taliban and Al-Qa‘ida have played in encouraging radicalization of China's Uighur (East Turkestani) separatists in Xinjiang.

It's a reminder that the Great Game in Central Asia is still very much afoot, and will be when the US leaves as well.

Halford Mackinder, please call your office.


Wishing Jewish readers greetings on the feast of Shavuot, which began last night at sundown. Background on the feast at Wikipedia.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Feud Between Copts, Orthodox Still On

The feud, mentioned earlier here, which has seen the Coptic Church suspend its membership in the Middle East Council of Churches, is simmering on. Here, Patriarch Theophilus, the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, denies he accused Coptic Pope Shenouda of "treason," insisting that was a fabrication of the Egyptian media, but also praised Bishop Bishoi, the sometimes controversial Coptic figure who was involved in the dispute. See my earlier post and also this one for more on some of the personalities involved.

Ha'aretz on Chomsky

Posting will be light today as I'm nursing a sick wife, but to give you something to read, here's Ha'aretz coming down hard on Israel's ban on Noam Chomsky, which I noted yesterday.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Most Ridiculous Controversy of the Day: Right Wing Furious About Arab-American Miss USA

Much Updated Below. As this story gets weirder, I'll update this post or add new ones.

My candidate for most ridiculous controversy of the day: the Miss USA Contest — a Donald Trump-run pageant several notches down from Miss America — has been won by an Arab-American of Lebanese origin. Apparently this has produced a lot of craziness on the far right, amid claims that she is a pro-Hizbullah mole of some sort infiltrating our beauty pageants in order to . . . what, exactly? Certainly the pictures of her in the swimsuit competition look like your standard Hizbullah infiltrator. (I wouldn't label these linked photos "not safe for work," but let's say she's not in a niqab.) And she went to Catholic High School in Dearborn, another sure indicator of Hizbullah ties. [Initially I didn't link directly to the insane stuff, but as it gets weirder and explodes in the blogosphere, you may want to read this diatribe, or this one, which flat-out calls her sharmuta, or whore (and not in the best sense, if you know what I mean) in Arabic (but wait: I thought she was a Hizbullah agent), and it gets worse.]

I thought anti-Arab, anti-Islamic paranoia couldn't get worse, but I hadn't realized that we needed to be on constant guard against the Islamist infiltration of our precious beauty pageants.

UPDATED: More evidence of radical Islamist tendencies are emerging: pictures in fishnet stockings and garter belts (see left), pictures of her pole-dancing in a "Stripper 2007 " competition, (also here), etc. She's obviously about one step away from strapping on a suicide vest, if she ever starts wearing much above her waist. Have we gone insane? She's being denounced over here as a (nearly-naked) Hizbullah mole and yet Hizbullah is unlikely to reprint these pictures. And this report says that 1997 "photos show Fakih pole dancing and with dollar bills in her bra.". ..

I'm pretty sure that's prima facie evidence of terrorist activity, aren't you? Obvious money laundering, by putting the dollar bills in her bra they figure they're going to escape detection . . .

Real Americans: Know Your Enemy (Just Kidding):

Ah, Lebanon.

Jamal Khashoggi Resigns as Editor of Al-Watan

Jamal Khashoggi has resigned as Editor of the Saudi newspaper al-Watan after it published a controversial article critical of Salafi Islam. The BBC has the story in English here. Though Khashoggi was apparently out of the country when the article appeared, the presumption is that he was forced to resign. He's been a prominent voice for reform and the newspaper one of the livelier ones, so this is probably bad news from a freedom-of-the-press perspective.

Saudi Woman Beats Up Religious Policeman

I'm going to follow the lead of the Saudi Gazette and report this more or less without commentary, letting you make up your own comments: Saudi police are investigating the case of a religious policeman from the Commission (Hay'a) for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice who needed medical treatment after being beaten by a young woman he had questioned.

A similar account here.

Turki al-Faisal Slams US Policy in Afghanistan

Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, longtime head of Saudi Intelligence and later Ambassador to London and Washington, has given a speech in which he sharply criticized US policies in Afghanistan. He has argued that US policy towards Hamid Karzai "beggars disbelief and amazement. Both sides are now filled with resentment and a sour taste in their mouths."

For a figure with such close ties to the US, it's a sharp critique. He urges the US to "get the terrorists, declare victory, and get out." Here's the longer version:
Afghanistan has a special place in my heart. I not only love the country and its people, but I also believe that it has not been given its due of peace and prosperity. It is a clear example of unilateral and naked ambition on the part of a former super power to change the status quo without regard to moral principle, international law, or human consideration. Alas, we have seen that repeated in Iraq by the other super power. What Afghanistan needs, now, is a shift from nation building to effectively countering terrorists. The point has been made that America and the rest of the world cannot accept that any country be the launching ground of terrorist activity as Afghanistan was from 1997 until today. The moral high ground which America acquired after September 11th has been dissipated since then because of American negligence, ignorance, and arrogance. Mr. Obama's declared policy in Afghanistan is to go after the terrorists. He should do so. He should not be misdirected into believing that he can fix Afghanistan's ills by military means. Hunt down the terrorists on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, arrest them or kill them, and get out; and let the Afghan people deal with their problems. As long as GI boots remain on Afghan soil, they remain targets of resistance for the Afghan people and ideological mercenaries. The inept way in which this Administration has dealt with President Karzai beggars disbelief and amazement. Both sides are now filled with resentment and a sour taste in their mouths. How can they both get out of that situation, I don't know. Nor can I pretend that future resentment and bad taste will not happen. The attempts being made now are a step in the right direction. That is why I suggest that America get the terrorists, declare victory, and get out. The Taliban of today are no longer the exclusively Pashtun warriors who ruled Afghanistan until 2002. They are now any and every Afghan of whatever ilk who raises arms against the foreign invaders. By declaring them the enemy, America has declared the people of Afghanistan the enemy. Here also, there should be no more platitudes and good wishes. Boots on the ground, chasing the terrorists is what is needed.

Israel Bars Chomsky

Noam Chomsky drives a lot of people crazy. Sometimes, he drives me a little crazy. Some of his critiques of US foreign policy seem cogent; others seem ideological, intemperate, or just plain extreme.

He's a well-known (Jewish) critic of Israel. There's a flap going on at the moment because Israeli border guards prevented him from crossing into the West Bank at the Allenby Bridge, to speak at Birzeit University near Ramallah. More here, including Chomsky's assertion Israel behaved like a "Stalinist" regime.

I have real mixed emotions on this one since I gather Chomsky can be really infuriating to those who have to deal directly with him, but I also think turning back a dovish intellectual of Chomsky's stature makes Israel look like it's 1) unable to abide criticism, or at least let Arabs hear it; 2) way too sensitive about Western critics, especially Jewish ones; and/or trying to alienate external observers (not impossible).

My attitude towards Chomsky has to be the Voltairian "I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it," combined with a certain Schadenfreude.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Abu Dhabi's Highest Ranking Female Cop

At least until late afternoon, I'm going to be tied up volunteering to help out with "colonial day" at my daughter's grade school. I hope to have more posts before the end of the day, though. (Later: The hope wasn't fulfilled. I'm off for the weekend, barring something major.)

But to get you going, an inspirational article about Abu Dhabi's highest ranking female police officer, Lt. Col. Eman al Jaberi, the only female lecturer at the Abu Dhabi Police College, holder of a doctorate in law, and, obviously, a Lieutenant Colonel of Police.

I know, I know. The article is full of sterotypical and condescending stuff, though I suspect it means well. Examples:

“They immediately stopped and realised that who was standing in front of them was not a weak woman, but a military figure as adequate as any of my male counterparts,” she said.

“After that, I started using a motherly approach with them, so they turned to obedience out of love.

“I treat them like my own children and guide them to success. I used to have one son, but now I feel that the thousands that graduate each year are all my children. During graduation they address me as ‘my mother’.” . . .

“The toughest job I ever had was dealing with other women,” she said.

“Females do not like to be supervised by another female – they prefer men. It was a maze. If I were kind to them, they would consider me weak, and if I tried to be smart or strict they would rebel.”
But this is the Gulf. That a woman has reached a lieutenant colonelcy in the police is worth noting, even if the newspaper account has a whiff of the condescension of Boswell's conversation with Dr Samuel Johnson:
I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. Johnson: "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."
Though at least the article isn't that condescending. In fact, brava for her putting up with all she must have had to put up with.

More after Colonial Day, I hope.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Carapico on US Policies Toward Yemen

Veteran Yemen specialist Sheila Carapico has a piece today on Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel criticizing the focus of US policy toward Yemen almost entirely on counterterrorism. Read it all, but here's a sample:
A policy dictated by the punctuated, unpredictable rhythm of terrorism is not likely to create a long-term, stable Yemen that aligns with U.S. interests or values. The United States has not been a patron of Yemeni democratization. Nor has it been a major donor of socioeconomic or humanitarian aid to combat grinding poverty or catastrophic ecological degradation. To the contrary, America has turned a blind eye to both human rights and human needs. The current policy of ignoring acute social, economic, and political problems while bolstering special operations forces, offering satellite surveillance, and rationalizing extrajudicial executions might possibly net a few terrorist suspects but will not stabilize the country, encourage the democratic opposition, or advance the rule of law.

Bahraini Fisherman Shot in Qatari Waters

A Bahraini fisherman was shot in Qatari waters over the weekend, awakening a longstanding feud between the two GCC states. The Bahraini fishermen are blaming Bahraini land reclamation for forcing them to fish neighboring waters, but tensions between the two are hardly new.

Bahrain and Qatar have feuded for much of the past century. The ruling families, the Al Khalifa of Bahrain and the Al Thani of Qatar, have been longtime rivals, and the Al Khalifa once owned the now-ruined town of Zubara on the western side of the Qatar peninsula. Their dispute over the Hawar Islands and other territorial claims went to the Hague in what the World Court described as the longest case it had ever adjudicated; it was finally decided in 2001. In the 1980s they fought over a reef called Fasht al-Dibal until after Saudi intervention, the reef was dredged to below the water level.

At the time of the World Court decision, I wrote up the decision in my since-defunct newsletter here (and part two here), and in fact a detailed article by a scholar on the subject is going to appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal. But despite the World Court decision and plans to build a friendship causeway connecting the two countries, obviously there are still sore spots.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Did Cairo Catch Weapons JFK Missed?

An Egyptian-American passenger has been detained at Cairo airport after arriving on an Egypt Air flight from New York with "six metal boxes containing two 9mm pistols, 250 bullets, two swords, and 11 daggers."

The firearms were in checked luggage, but the TSA is saying they were not declared, according to The New York Times. The NYT article seems to suggest that the TSA screening does not check for firearms (which unlike explosives can't harm the flight if in the cargo hold), but not declaring them would still be a violation. It's also a rather risky thing to take into a Middle Eastern airport, even if the TSA at JFK let them through.

Oh, and: two swords and 11 daggers?

UPDATE: Or perhaps two swords, five daggers, and six knives. That clears that up.

Egypt Emergency Extended: But a Kinder, Gentler Emergency?

Egypt has yet again extended its State of Emergency by two years.

Those my age may recall a running joke back when Saturday Night Live first debuted in the 1970s: the newscast reporting that Generalissimo Francisco Franco was still dead. For Egypt, the Emergency's continual renewals are not only a reminder that Anwar Sadat is still dead, but that, almost 29 years since his assassination, the reaction to the assassination is ongoing. For indeed, that's what the Emergency stems from. Of course, Sadat would turn 92 this year and even Mubarak will presumably retire by that age, but the Emergency persists.

In the 2005 Presidential elections, the first in which Husni Mubarak competed directly against a range of opposition candidates (without any danger of losing, of course), he promised to lift the Emergency Law and replace it with an anti-terrorism law. This has not yet happened, but heck, it's only been five years, and it's not like he has a rubber-stamp Parliament. (Oh, wait. He does.) Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif explained in his speech on extending the Emergency (a speech left to the Prime Minister as Chief Technocrat, not to the President to whom, as we learn below, the law is "abhorrent"):
To that end, the President of the Republic committed himself in his electoral platform to lift the state of emergency and formulate a new counter terrorism law which would balance personal freedom with the interests and security of society. The Government reiterated this commitment a few weeks ago before the UN Human Rights Council, and today the Government restates this commitment to the representatives of the nation to lift the state of emergency as soon as a balanced law is adopted which does not permit the use of extraordinary investigation measures unless necessary to counter terrorism, and then only under complete supervision by the judiciary. The Government is committed to presenting this law for public discussion, and to deliberate on it with the National Council for Human Rights and the civil society organisations.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Previously the Government had stated that it was requesting an extension of the state of emergency even though it was abhorrent to it, because we do not wish to govern under extraordinary conditions, but at the same time we do not wish to squander what we have achieved. Our achievements may not rise to the level of our ambitions or fulfil all our hopes, but we hold on to them, desiring to improve and develop them. They were not achieved easily, surrounded as we are by an unstable region, threats of terrorism around the world, and an unforeseen severe financial crisis. Nonetheless, and notwithstanding these conditions, we have been able to implement gradual political reform, and achieved economic growth which many states failed to accomplish. We were able to create job opportunities for our youth, and we are committed to increase them and wipe out unemployment, which is our highest priority and a major weapon against terrorism.

While it would be unjust to credit the stability we enjoy, and which has permitted us to achieve so much, to the emergency law alone, it would also be unjust to ignore the fact that the application of the emergency law has spared the nation the threats of terrorism and stopped many terrorist crimes before they could be committed.

Yes, the government is again extending the State of Emergency even though it is "abhorrent to it." (Full English text of the speech can be found here.) It's purely to prevent terrorism and narcotics trafficking. (And Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.)

Even so, Nazif went out of his way to make it clear that this would be a kinder, gentler Emergency Law. The government is sensitive to the bad reputation the law carries with it, and is trying to soften it a bit.

But if the tone of the renewal is a bit Orwellian, let's be fair to the Egyptian government here as well. In Saddam Hussein's Iraq, nobody bothered to pass Emergency Laws. There was no effort to pretend to a rule of law. Egypt at least keeps officially extending the Emergency. Yes, it restricts freedom of expression, assembly, and much else. But Egypt for all its faults is not Saddam's Iraq, Asad's Syria, or even Ben ‘Ali's Tunisia. There is an independent press which can criticize the Emergency Law, here for example, a still relatively independent judiciary which is divided over extending the law, and the renewed but kinder, gentler law will, apparently, be more limited.

Egyptians sometimes note that they come in for a lot of Western criticism even though their press and society is, in many ways, freer than a lot of other Arab countries. The criticism is accurate but, I think, misunderstands the reasons for the critique. Egypt is still the largest Arab country, the country so many others have followed and looked to; it was one of the first to defy colonial rule and one of the first to evoke pan-Arab emotions. It has also been one of the most liberal and open societies in the Arab world, outside of Lebanon at least, and it has the oldest media and the richest cinema and television culture.

Of those to whom much is given, much is expected. Egypt is arguably the oldest culture in the world, certainly the oldest unified nation. It has a deep, rich role in Arab history and in the history of Arab nationalism. Egyptians would be (rightly, I think) insulted if one compared them to Yemen or Jordan or Libya, so the government really should not be tempted by the "we're not as bad as Syria" argument.

And, precisely because the press is freer and more independent, it's easier to see the failings. I don't expect Egypt anytime soon to replicate what happened yesterday in London, when after 13 years in office the ruling party handed over power to the opposition, letting the Queen do the one constitutional duty left to her. But even though there is considerable openness in Egypt compared to its Arab neighbors, the Emergency Law remains a thorn in the side of the opposition, and its renewal, even if in kinder, gentler, form, is a constant reminder that Egypt's relatively open society (though lacking political democracy) can still be constrained and the open windows closed at any time.

Criticism of Egyptian lack of democracy is not because it is the worst Arab country in these matters, but because it is one of the best, but still falls so short of what it could be.

Oddities of International Wheeling and Dealing: Sheikh Khalifa and Two Russian Bosses

Via a reader who follows the intricacies of international finance, an odd report of how Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayid, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, was apparently involved as a middleman between the famous/or notorious Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky and another Russian wheeler-dealer.

Make of it what you will. I wouldn't have ever seen this without my readers (it's on the NASDAQ site), so I assume some of you won't have either.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Copts in Feud with ME Council of Churches

Pope Shenouda III has suspended the Coptic Church's membership in the Middle East Council of Churches, in a dispute which finds the controversial Secretary of the Coptic Holy Synod, Bishop Bishoi, involved. The Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos, denied Bishoi the right to defend the church when others attacked the Secretary General of the MECC, Girgis Saleh, a Copt.

Right now, the Al-Masry al-Youm report is the only thing I can find, so this is a preliminary comment. Hopefully, we'll learn more shortly.

We all recognize that Eastern Christians are waning in the land where the religion was founded and neighboring lands, driven out by militant Islamists, Iraqi warfare, Israeli land pressure, and the like. But the internal feuds that have riven Christianity since the earliest centuries have not gone away.

If you can't readily remember the difference between a Nestorian and a Monophysite or, more importantly, why both terms are offensive to the churches Catholics and Orthodox refer to with those terms, this will be way too abstruse for you.

Many of the main characters in this drama have been the subjects of posts here before. Pope Shenouda III is a regular subject of the blog, as the Coptic Pope/Patriarch is in his 80s and succession is a lively issue. Anba (Bishop) Bishoi is Bishop of Damietta and would very, very, very much like to be the next Pope; as Secretary of the Holy Synod he's got an excellent chance, but is a polarizing figure who alienates other religions (suggesting Catholics and Orthodox cannot be saved, while Shenouda has been an ecumenical figure), he may have polarized the Copts out of the Middle Eastern Council of Churches. Patriarch Theophilos III, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, is a controversial figure in his own right, having come to power when his predecessor Irenaios was deposed in 2005, caught up in a dispute over leasing church property to Israeli settlers in the Old City. But there's another issue: the Orthodox church still insists that the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem must be Greek. Almost all of his church's followers in the Jerusalem Patriarchate (mostly Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan), its priests, and many of its bishops are Arabs; yet the Patriarch always comes from a Greek monastery. As does Theophilos.

So none of the main characters in this drama are exactly uncontroversial. It will be interesting to see what happens next, assuming this report is true. I haven't got much more at this time.

A "Knowledge City" in Medina Where Non-Muslims Are Accepted

The Muslim Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina are traditionally known as the Haramayn, the two sanctuaries, and as such they are prohibited ground, haram, for non-Muslims, a restriction which I believe is attributed to the second Caliph, ‘Umar. (Smaller haram areas are the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem and the Haram al-Khalil in Hebron.)

But as Medina has grown some of its suburbs are outside the traditionally defined haram boundaries, and so, for the first time, a new "Knowledge City" suburb of Medina will be open to residence by non-Muslims, in part because it is meant as an opening to the world for learning about Islam.

Is OECD Quid pro Quo for Proximity Talks?

This piece by Aluf Benn in Ha'aretz suggests that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) acceptance of Israeli membership may be a sort of quid pro quo for the beginning of proximity talks, and other concessions made by the Netanyahu government under pressure. The headline, OECD is one place where the occupation won't count," would seem to suggest that Israel doesn't really expect to have to deliver much more than the start of talks.

Given the overall pessimistic mood on both sides with the start of proximity talks yesterday, I'm not sure that's what the OECD intended to happen. If membership helps persuade Israel that, as a member of the industrial nations, it has a responsibility to move ahead with peace talks, fine. If on the other hand it sees OECD membership as somehow endorsing continued occupation, that seems to go against the whole idea of this being a carrot to persuade Israel to become a player in the Western industrial world. It's been reported that Israel will be the poorest OECD member, but in many ways it does qualify as an industrial nation, and if OECD membership gives it the confidence to take some risks for peace, I'd say fine. If it just gives it a fig leaf to have some proximity talks that lead nowhere, perhaps not so fine.

Monday, May 10, 2010

It Was a Turkish Guy Who Crashed Twitter

You probably have heard that Twitter was down for an hour or so today. It seems the whole problem started when a Turkish user discovered that if you simply typed "Accept" followed by a famous person's Twitter name, said famous person would be following you. Naturally, the information went viral while the whole world was making Bill Gates and Madonna their followers, and the system was shut down. Or so it says here. It sounds like a ridiculously simple glitch that somehow only just was discovered. I think I'm glad I'm too talkative to keep to 140 characters. Though I could have had lots of celebrity followers for a while there.

Qatar Buying Harrod's From Fayed

I'm sure the usual jokes about Gulf Arabs and their London shopping sprees will be forthcoming. Qatar has gone shopping at for Harrod's, now that Muhammad al-Fayed has decided to sell it. Qatar holdings, the small emirate's sovereign fund, is buying the famed department store for some £1.5 billion. The story's actually a couple of days old. Fayed, once a celebrity in his own right but now probably doomed to be remembered as the father of Dodi al-Fayed, who in turn will only be remembered as dying with Princess Diana, is of course of Egyptian origin, so the famed Knightsbridge store has been in Arab hands for years. Mostly I'm noting this for the record.

A Grim Monday in Iraq

Apparently today's Iraqi bombings have taken the biggest toll this year to date. Not encouraging news at all. Juan Cole finds some faint glimmers of hope in reports that Nuri al-Maliki may try t find a way to include ‘Iyad ‘Allawi's &lsqluo;Iraqiyya Movement in a new government. That, at least, would give Sunni voters a sense they were represented.

I suspect the US would dearly like to see such an inclusion, but the more openly the US supports one side, the more it may alienate others. It's a delicate balancing act.

Cairo's Coffeehouse Scene

If you need a little strong qahwa mazbut to get your Monday started, you might try this article on the Cairo coffeehouse scene from Al-Masry al-Youm's English website. A lot of it focuses on Zahret al-Bustan, next to the Cafe Riche. The Riche was a regular spot for me in the old days, before it was closed for many years after the Cairo earthquake, though it's since been reopened I understand.

An article mainly for the Old Cairo hands, or those about to become some.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Lebanon Raises the Ante:10 Tons of Hummus

The battle between Lebanon and Israel over who can make the largest pot of hummus continues: the Lebanese have more than doubled the previous record with 10 tons worth. There's video at the link. Ha'aretz has the chutzpah to run the headline, "Peas Process Takes a Leap Forward as Lebanon Mashes Israel's Hummus Record."

Earlier rounds here, and here. Let's hope this is the only war between Israel and Lebanon anytime soon.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Jerusalem Old City Initiative: The Podcasts

I posted Wednesday about the Jerusalem Old City Initiative Conference Presentation MEI hosted that day, and linked to the Initiative's own information-rich website. MEI's podcasts of the event are now up, the first being the main presentation, the second the brainstorming session/Q&A part. I believe video may be forthcoming, but here's plenty to listen to. Note: these links go straight to the MP3 podcasts, so use earphones if you're in a group setting.

The Presentation

The Brainstorming Session

It's Mother's Day weekend here in the US. See you all Monday.

Sex and Some Other City

Some of these links are from back in April, but heck, I'm an old married man with a kid who doesn't keep up with the whole Sex and the City thing (though at least I no longer have to watch Dora the Explorer cartoons), and it took a younger colleague to flag this issue for me. As apparently everyone on earth and several of the inner planets knows, the forthcoming movie Sex and the City 2, opening soon, is at least partly set in Abu Dhabi.

Except that both Abu Dhabi and Dubai declined the honor of allowing filming in their fair cities, since, as certain British and Pakistani couples have learned recently, and despite a general sense of openness, and some locals who know how to get around the rules, there's no sex in those cities. At least not officially, and especially not on the beaches. So Morocco is playing Abu Dhabi for the movies. What part of Morocco is not specified in the material I've seen, and it's been a long time since I've been in Morocco, but I'm guessing there's a lot of computer graphics backgrounds in use, unless Casablanca has gone all Shanghai on us, or they just figure nobody knows what Abu Dhabi looks like. (Anybody want to bet there are camels in it? Gotta be camels or you'd think it was Palm Springs, right? Our heroines are going to ride camels, right? Isn't that how you get from the airport to your hotel in Abu Dhabi? It was the last time Wilfred Thesiger was there. Except there was no airport. I'm ranting. Sorry.)

It would be interesting to know why the brains (if that was the bodily organ involved) behind Sex and and the City 2 decided to set the story in Abu Dhabi in the first place. Was it a Maurice Chevalier "Come wees me to ze Casbah" thing? Except for the old fort and a mosque or two, the oldest building in Abu Dhabi dates from the 1980s (oh, sorry, that one was just torn down to build a new one: make it the 1990s: wait, here come the bulldozers) so it's not exactly Casbah country.

The National, Abu Dhabi's increasingly lively English daily, has been on the case, with an early take here; an article here on potential tourist boosts, and a piece on films made in locations other than their alleged setting here (familiar to Washingtonians who've seen plenty of films and TV shows where the chase passes the Lincoln Memorial and then the Sierra Nevadas show up in the background).

So Morocco, which has played a lot of other Arab countries in films before (as has Israel, for that matter), may drive a tourism boom to Abu Dhabi. But to paraphrase the title of a famous British play: no sex, please, we're Emirati.

Late Addition: A commenter has noted that my 1) CGI Abu Dhabi and 2) camel comments are not only dead on, but in the trailer (1:17, 1:23). So I have no alternative but embedding the trailer:

Forgive me. It's worse than I'd imagined.

Their Dinner with Mottaki

The Iranian delegation to the United Nations went and invited the UN Security Council to dinner with Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. Other than China, the Permanent Five were represented below the Ambassadorial level. Still, lower level US diplomats showed.

Iran's rather forward, aggressive self-defense on the nuclear issue continues. For all of Ahmadinejad's frequently buffoonish behavior, somebody out there knows how to spin. Westerners have eaten their bread and salt. Hospitality trumps hostility. BBC here. AP here.
Ha'aretz here drawing from Reuters but emphasizing the US was present.

It will probably draw squawks from the Bomb Iran folks, but a member of the United Nations invited members of the Security Council to dinner, and evcrybody went. We sent lower ranking folks, but we didn't boycott. So?

How was the dinner?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

You Read it Here First

This exchange already occurred in the comments of another post, but deserves to be shared. The Christian Science Monitor ran a piece a couple of days ago on "Surfing the Blue Line between Israel and Hizbollah."

My commenter presumably thought I'd find it interesting, and indeed I do.

Interesting, but old news. Jesse Aizenstat, aka Abu Guerrilla of the Blogging the Casbah blog, was noted here for his surfing posts on Israel and Lebanon back in December and yet again in January.

Congratulations on his forthcoming book and on his getting the notice of the mainstream media. But you read it here first.

And the CSM article didn't seem to mention his blog.

Oh, and while I don't want to rub it in (well, maybe just a little), the Monitor article also carries this correction: "
Editor's note: The original photo caption misidentified Imad Mughniyeh as Khaled Mashal."

Yeah, they're easy to confuse. All men with beards look alike. Except one of them's dead. And one's Sunni and one's Shi‘ite. And they are from different organizations and countries. Other than that, though . . .

Umm, not so much.

First non-Roman URLs Today

As had previously been announced some time back, URLs in non-Roman alphabets are now feasible. Here's an article on the subject; and the Egyptian Ministry of Communications is available at its old address of http://www.mcit.gov.eg/ or its new one ofوزارة-الأتصالات.مصر which takes you to the Arabic website. The address that shows up in your browser address bar may not look like Arabic, depending on your settings.

The first three country codes available were Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. No big surprises there.

A Shi‘ite Bloc in Iraq

The agreement between the two main Shi‘ite blocs in Iraq over forming a coalition that would exclude ‘Iyad ‘Allawi's ‘Iraqiyya Bloc could break the logjam left by the electoral stalemate, but not necessarily in a good way.

Reidar Visser on the deal here. He sees it as a step backward, a sectarian Shi‘ite bloc that would presumably try to forge a coalition with the Kurds, leaving Sunnis (which in this context means Arab Sunnis as opposed to Kurds) out in the cold. Juan Cole notes reports that a council of "wise men" chosen by Ayatollah Sistani will choose the candidate for Prime Minister, and that this is being seen as a victory for Iran.

Certainly it's a blow to ‘Allawi's hopes of becoming Prime Minister, and may leave the Sunnis feeling marginalized again after making strides towards finding a role to play. It's probably not the scenario the US Administration would have preferred, and no government has been formed yet, but it certainly looks like a sectarian bloc has been restored.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mubarak is Back in Cairo

Husni Mubarak returned to Cairo earlier today after 38 days in Sharm al-Sheikh, just when speculation about his health was reaching a high pitch again. (Link is in Arabic.) He also met there with Abu Mazen (Mahmoud ‘Abbas), and will apparently soon be giving his postponed May Day address to the nation.

Now for those who read my post of yesterday, based on Egyptian blogger Zeinobia's astute observation, you may notice that in the first picture here, the left arm and hand are in the same position as in all the other recent summit photos.

On the other hand, the picture on Al-Ahram's web page (rotating, so it may not appear at first click) is a bit different:

Here, he clearly seems to be gesturing with the left hand, though it's still held at about the same angle and position.

For those who don't read the comments on these posts, I should note that commenter "A", on my earlier post on the issue, brilliantly noted that "they'll eventually be forced to release pictures of Mubarak armwrestling Omar Suleiman." Well, he isn't exactly arm wrestling Abu Mazen, but he is gesturing.

But it still looks stiff. I know we're playing the game the Kremlinologists used to play to figure out how nearly dead Leonid Brezhnev was, but remember, an Egyptian blogger started this discussion, not I.

But it Doesn't Fit the Narrative . . .

Yes, the confessed Times Square bomber was a Muslim. But so was the first guy to report the bomb. A vendor from Senegal, who, due to poor English, asked the T-shirt vendor we've all heard about to talk to the cops.

Funny how that doesn't make the front pages.

The Jerusalem Old City Initiative

This morning MEI served as host to the presentation at the Mayflower Hotel of the Jerusalem Old City Initiative, based at the University of Windsor in Canada and including Israelis, Palestinians, and others. Our event announcement is here; their website is here.

This is another attempt, along the lines of the Geneva Accord (and involving some of the same participants) to offer possible futures for Jerusalem, so often seen as the insoluble kernel at the heart of the conflict. Unlike Geneva, which envisioned dividing the city, including the Old City, this Canadian initiative envisions a "Special Regime" for the walled city, one that does not override the claims to sovereignty of Israel and a Palestinian state, but defers it. It is not, they emphasize, the corpus separatum of some previous plans.

Even those who prepared this plan, which is quite detailed both as to governance and security issues, admit to some reservations; still, as they were quick to note, such plans provide potential blueprints for that future day when all the issues except the Old City have been resolved.

The proposal they handed out today runs 130 pages and consists of the documents which can also be found, separately, on their website linked above. I won't presume to summarize because, like the Geneva Accord, this is a detailed study that deserves to be assessed in full. Like Geneva, it is easier for academics and diplomats to reach agreement than the political actors, but if there is ever going to be a breakthrough (and admittedly the pessimists are growing in numbers lately, as shown by Aaron Miller's recent essay), this kind of creative thinking is going to be necessary. It may not be this plan, but unconventional thinking is always helpful.

I'm not going to try to summarize the morning's discussions; when the podcast (and eventually I think video) are up, I'll link to those; meanwhile, there's a lot of material available through the Initiative's website.

More Mubarak Speculation

The Arabist picks up on Zeinobia's picture evidence I noted last night, and offers more speculation of his own.Husni Mubarak may be in perfect health, though the evidence looks contrary, but he's still 82 and has no designated successor. For years Egyptians kept reassuring me that the system would work and that foreigners speculated too much about the succession. But now they seem focused on it themselves.

Trying to Find Avocados for Cinco de Mayo in Abu Dhabi

Happy Cinco de Mayo to all you non-Mexicans who use it an excuse (as if one were necessary) to drink Dos Equis and eat enchiladas. Here's an article in The National about the problems of making real guacamole in Abu Dhabi, where avocados can be in short supply (they import them from Kenya), among other things related to Mexican food in the Gulf. The article notes, correctly, that Cinco de Mayo tends to be partied heartier outside Mexico than at home, where September 16 (Independence Day) is bigger, so I'll wish Mexican readers an early independence day instead. (Saint Patrick's Day in Ireland is somewhat parallel: people go to church in Ireland while in Chicago they're dyeing the river green. And the Irish Prime Minister never gets to be at home on the saint's day since he traditionally visits the US President then.)

Anyway, I thought the guacamole shortage in Abu Dhabi was appropriate for today. I'll be at this event through the morning, so posting's likely to be thin till later.

¡But at least I found a Middle East link for Cinco de Mayo!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Mubarak's Left Arm: is Something Wrong?

An additional note for Mubarak's 82nd birthday: Egyptian blogger Zeinobia asks an interesting question: in all the pictures of his summits at Sharm al-Sheikh, his left arm and hand appear to be in exactly the same position. Here are a couple of examples, but she has more at the link:

I don't know if this means anything, but the lack of public appearances, the cancellation of the Sarkozy visit, and the fact that, except for Netanyahu, he's limited his meetings to Arab leaders may suggest there's more to the speculation about his health than officialdom wants us to know. His surgery involved his gallbladder and intestines. What's with the left hand?

And now that I think about it, when he first got off the plane at Sharm after his return from Germany I remarked on the fact that he descended the steps without holding his wife's hand, commenting at the time that "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."

On second thought, what if there is something wrong with the arm, so Suzanne couldn't hold it. On the other hand, at the top of the steps, he does move his left arm to adjust his jacket, so the whole arm is presumably not paralyzed. (Or, of course, he could have had a setback after he returned to Egypt. There were no photos for weeks after the arrival.)

Sorry to speculate on your birthday Mr. President, but a lot of people, not just Egyptians, are wondering about the succession, so your health is fair game for discussion.

Here's the video again: