A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Egypt Round One Results

The results of the first round of Egyptian elections appear to be more or less as expected: round one saw 221 seats filled; the other 287 face a runoff on Sunday. Of the 221 decided, the National Democratic Party won 209. Sebe4n indepe de ts were elected, but they were not apparently among the independents fielded by the Muslim Brotherhood. (Other independents often join the NDP in Parliament.) The Wafd won three seats, the leftist Tagammu‘ one, the Musa Mustafa faction of the Ghad Party one, and the small Social Justice and Democratic Peace Parties one apiece. Although 26 or 27 Muslim Brotherhood candidates still have a chance in the runoff, they haven't one a single seat outright (compared to 88 in the outgoing Parliament). The Brothers were also shut out of the Upper House elections earlier in the year, and are threatening to boycott the runoff.

The government claims a 35% turnout (at least they're not insulting everyone's intelligence with the old 90% + claims), but independent estimates suggested 15%.

Unless there are surprises in the runoff, this will be the poorest showing in an election that wasn't outright boycotted by the opposition parties, and might even be worse than some that were. Obviously the NDP wants everyone to know who's in charge for the Presidential elections.

I'll have further thoughts between here and the runoff.

Egypt Elections Update

Final results of the first round of elections haven't yet been announced, but it looks as if about half of the seats will go to runoff, though most of those will be between competing NDP candidates. Some 27 Muslim Brotherhood candidates will go to runoff; so will a few Wafd and Tagammu&lslquo; (a leftist party) candidates. So far only three Wafdists, one Tagammu‘ and one Social Justice candidate have been elected outright. Turnout is supposed to have been either 25% of 35%, depending on the report, though observers suggested only 15% turned out.

Egypt Elections Won by Cairo Traffic

The Higher Elections Committee announcement on preliminary results of Egypt's elections was supposed to start a little while ago, but is on hold because the person with the results is stuck in Cairo traffic.

Or so several people are saying on Twitter. Some things never change.

New Mossad Chief: Tamir Pardo

Mossad's new chief, replacing Meir Dagan, has been named: Tamir Pardo.

Yeah, you've never heard of him. Neither have I. He's not one of the known names recently bandied about (Yuval Diskin, Amos Yadlin, even Ehud Barak). He's a former Deputy Director (never known except by initial) who stepped down in 2005 and has been an advisor to the IDF in the interim. That's why you haven't heard of him, unless you're in the loop. But Mossad wanted someone from within the organization, and he appears to have been the only internal candidate.

But since he's a career Mossad guy, you've never heard of him. That's kind of the idea. Only for a decade or so has the name of the Director been public.

Haaretz' profile here
. Jerusalem Post's here.

Controversial blogger Richard Silverstein leaked the name early, though not by much. He notes that the Spanish name Pardo suggests he may be the first Sephardic director of Mossad.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Wikileaks and Potential Blowback in the Arab World

I'm not going to try to get deeply into the whole Wikileaks issue, but the release of a huge collection of US diplomatic cables clearly has policy implications in the Middle East. There's more than enough commentary on the overall diplomatic embarrassment caused, and on the question of how to stop these sorts of leaks. And I certainly haven't read all 250,000 cables, but the ones spotlighted so far seem more embarrassing than revelatory. But the issue has some region-specific implications in the Arab world.

Issandr El Amrani and Marc Lynch both address this issue today. As Issandr notes:

There is so much information flowing around about US policy — and often, a good deal of transparency — that a smart observer with good contacts can get a good idea of what's happening. Not so in the Arab world, and the contents of the conversations Arab leader are having with their patron state are not out in the Arab public domain or easily guessable, as anyone who reads the meaningless press statements of government press agencies will tell you. Cablegate is in important record from the Arab perspective, perhaps more than from the US one.

Lynch echoes this and then raises a key dilemma for the Arab media:

But, as Issandr el-Amrani pointed out earlier today, the real impact may well be in the Arab world, where rulers go to great lengths to keep such things secret. The Arab media thus far is clearly struggling to figure out how to report them, something I'll be following over the next week. One of the points which I've made over and over again is that Arab leaders routinely say different things in private and in public, but that their public rhetoric is often a better guide to what they will actually do since that reflects their calculation of what they can get away with politically. Arab leaders urged the U.S. to go after Saddam privately for years, but wouldn't back it publicly for fear of the public reaction. It's the same thing with Iran over the last few years, or with their views of the Palestinian factions and Israel. But now those private conversations are being made public, undeniably and with names attached.

So here's the million dollar question: were their fears of expressing these views in public justified? Let's assume that their efforts to keep the stories out of the mainstream Arab media will be only partially successful -- and watch al-Jazeera here, since it would traditionally relish this kind of story but may fear revelations about the Qatari royal family. Extremely important questions follow. Will Arab leaders pay any significant political price for these positions, as they clearly feared? Or will it turn out that in this era of authoritarian retrenchment they really can get away with whatever diplomatic heresies they like even if it outrages public opinion? Will the publication of their private views lead them to become less forthcoming in their behavior in order to prove their bona fides -- i.e. less supportive of containing or attacking Iran, or less willing to deal with Israel? Or will a limited public response to revelations about their private positions lead them to become bolder in acting on their true feelings? Will this great transgression of the private/public divide in Arab politics create a moment of reckoning in which the Arab public finally asserts itself... or will it be one in which Arab leaders finally stop deferring to Arab public opinion and start acting out on their private beliefs?

All countries are more candid in private diplomatic exchanges than in public statements, of course; that's why diplomatic exchanges are not published until years after the fact. But the disconnect between public positions and private assessments is usually not as great in the West, where there is plenty of public debate about policy issues, as in the Arab world. (There are exceptions; the release of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War showed such a divergence between public statements and actual policy as to provoke scandal.) But the culture of secrecy in the West is nowhere near as pervasive as in the Middle East, where even things that are well-known are routinely denied.

One of the most-headlined revelations, that Saudi Arabia is so concerned about Iran that it urged a US attack, is not a huge revelation to most Westerners who follow the region, but it no doubt comes as a surprise to many Saudis, since it doesn't reflect official statements. Certain realities that "everybody knows" or at least suspects, may not in fact be known to Arab populations back home. Some things, especially surreptitious cooperation with Israel, are absolutely taboo and always resolutely denied. Exact details of military cooperation with the United States are equally sensitive, even if details are easily learned from US military veterans returning home.

The US has always honored these local sensitivities, and thus certain questions remain unanswered. Certain aspects of the US air war against Iraq in 2003 have never been fully documented because of sensitivity over where the sorties originated. The Wikileaks documents apparently address the not-so-secret US role in air strikes in Yemen, also never publicly acknowledged.

As Lynch notes, the Arab media face a dilemma here: secrets that were fairly openly known in the West have just been publicly released, with names and direct quotes. Some in the West may say, "Oh, I knew that already, or strongly suspected it." But what in the past was coolly denied is more credible when a Ruler is being quoted by a US Ambassador. The tendency to distrust the US and question its reliability as a partner may be the first instinctive response. While the excessive culture of secrecy in the Arab world is easy to deplore, it is, for now, a fact of life in the diplomacy of the region. The harm created by these leaks is less likely to be a direct unraveling of policy than a growing unwillingness of diplomatic partners to confide their true thoughts for fear of reading them in the newspapers.

Election Complaints Growing

Complaints about irregularities in Egyptian elections are routine, but yesterday's vote has produced unusually extensive claims of irregularities. As was already clear in the 2005 vote,the ubiquity of cell phone cameras and the rise of YouTube has made quick documentation easier, and now Twitter makes it instantaneous.

There will doubtless be more detail forthcoming. The government is admitting there were some irregularities bu claims the overall process was good, and is even quoting praise by foreign commentators (link is in Arabic). Opposition forces and human rights groups are telling a differen story.

The Egyptian Organization of Human Rights
(EOHR) has been very active in trying to monitor the elections: here is their Report #1 and Report #2. More may appear.

Human Rights Watch has a report here. Their Deputy Director, Joe Stork, was briefly detained by police in the Delta.

Independent press accounts can be found here and here. A Muslim Brotherhood version here.

More as it emerges.

NDP Nearly Sweeps First Round; No Seats Yet for Brotherhood

Egypt's Parliamentary elections yesterday, which defiantly rejected the presence of foreign election observers, seem to have gone about as most observers expected: widespread accusaations of feraud, rigging, and ballot-stuffing, some violence (somewhere between two and eight dead depending on the report), and a near sweep for the ruling National Democratic Party.

Last time around, in 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood won a stunning 88 seats, out of 508 elected seats. (That was, admittedly, permitted in part to show the US that pressure for democratization could produce unwelcome results. So far in yesterday's vote, not one Brotherhood candidate has been elected outright in round one, though 15 or so will go into next Sunday's runoff round. The Wafd, which many expected to replace the Brotherhood as the main opposition and which has seemed at times to be doing the government's bidding, has won at least five seats, perhaps more, and will have others in the runoff.

Nonetheless, and subject to the results of next week's second round, the opposition could end up with the fewest seats in years, at least in an election which the opposition parties did not boycott altogether.

The government, of course, is setting the stage for next year's Presidential elections, whether Husni Mubarak tries to run for another term or designate a chosen successor.

I'll post more as the final tallies from round one come in.

Holidays All Around

I'm back from the long Thanksgiving Weekend in the US. I'll be commenting on Egypt's elections and other developments in a bit, but thought I'd note that not only have we begun the period which in the US is called "the holidays," but that it's not just the West.

Hanukkah starts at sundown on Wednesday. The Muslim New Year 1432 (Ra's al-Sana) begins December 7, or more exactly at sundown the evening before; ‘Ashura, noted by all Muslims but the great observation of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn for Shi‘a, is December 16; Latin (Western) Christmas is of course December 25. One of the major seasonal Zoroastrian festivals begins at the end of the year. Since winter solstice fesztibals are common, I may have omitted some of the smaller Middle Eastern religions (Yazidis, Mandeans, etc.), and welcome knowing about additions.

So in advance, Happy Holidays.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Post-Thanksgiving Reverie: What do Turkeys have to do with Turkey?

I've already signed off for the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, and if you haven't watched the old videos I posted (just below) please do so, but a brief Facebook exchange on Thanksgiving night reminded me of the oddity of the term by which we call the bird so associated with Thanksgiving: that most American of birds, the turkey. (Ben Franklin thought the wild turkey, not the bald eagle, should be the American emblem.) For you non-American readers, Thanksgiving is associated with turkeys, which we eat for Thanksgiving dinner. At the first thanksgiving in 1621, after the Pilgrims in Plymouth had survived a horrible year, the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims spent several days celebrating a harvest feast. They ate deer and the fruits of the harvest, and "fowl." Turkeys aren't mentioned (there are only two references to the first Thanksgiving, by William Bradford and somebody else), but have become canonical. This was a symbol of colonist/Indian amity, and has been celebrated for many years, starting sometime after the Wampanoag were essentially wiped out. The President of the United States issues a Presidential pardon to the official White House turkey and its backup (the Vice Turkey?) on TV:


Turkeys are not terribly intelligent birds (that's an understatement, and probably why "turkey" is a pejorative at times) but are very good to eat.

That begs the major question: If the turkey is an American bird, why is it named for Turkey?

Damned if I know, but Wikipedia offers this:
When Europeans first encountered turkeys on the American continent, they incorrectly identified the birds as a type of guineafowl (Numididae), also known as turkey fowl (or turkey hen and turkey cock) due to the birds' importation to Central Europe through Turkey. That name, shortened to just the name of the country, stuck as the name of the American bird.
Okay, but Guinea and Turkey are not particularly close to each other. But that's just the first step.

The Turks call it Hindi, or the Indian bird. French dinde, similarly, started out as d'Inde. So in Turkey, it's Indian. Apparently languages ranging from modern Hebrew to most Slavic languages (indyk or something similar) follow suit. But it's not an Indian bird, either.

In Arabic, or at least every Arabic country where I've talked turkey, it called dik rumi, the "Roman fowl," but "Roman" here means pertaining to the Byzantine Empire, hence Greek or Anatolian. It's not Greek or Anatolian either, though Anatolia today = Turkey. But various sources say that Palestinian and other Levantine dialects call it dik habashi, or Ethiopian bird. (Maybe better "Abyssinian bird" since the Arabic habash and the Greek Abyssinia are the same word.) I guess I never discussed turkeys in the Levant, if that's the case. And it's not Ethiopian, either.

I'm on a holiday break so I'm stopping there. Bernard Lewis, who whatever you think of his current politics is one of the last of the old-school orientalists, has suggested the bird is called by whatever term people see as meaning "exotic" or "foreign": something like "It's Greek to me."

I don't care what you call the damned bird. Pass the dressing.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Four-Day Weekend Historical Video Blowout

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day here in the US, beginning a four-day weekend for those of us not in retail sales, but the busiest weekend of the year for retailers, since it's the traditional start of Christmas shopping. Though my daughter prefers Cornish game hens to turkey, we'll be otherwise traditional and I'll be off the grid for a few days.

For the past three weekends, plus the Veterans' Day holiday, I've been doing my Weekend Historical Videos feature. Since this is a four-day weekend, it's only appropriate to double down, or more. There are a couple of hours or more of video below.

My Veterans' Day post dealt with videos from World War I in the Middle East, which is by and large our first real video record of the region: the armies on both sides took black and white, soundless, jerky video of some of the major events. There's more surviving footage than I posted there, though, and to give you something to do during my four days of absence (barring something big), I've decided to do a big video dump here. Some of these are as short as a minute, some more than an hour. Unlike the Veterans' Day post, these have no real connection to Thanksgiving, unless I make the really atrocious pun that they all involve Turkey in some way. But I would never stoop so low as to do that. So here goes:

Lawrence of Arabia

A collector has posted a video of what he originally thought was all the known video of T.E. Lawrence ("of Arabia")(but see below), with, perhaps inevitably, the theme from the David Lean film as background. Since Lawrence is the first thing most Westerners think of when they think of the Great War and the Middle East, let's start here. (two minutes, 33 seconds):

He subsequently found a bit over one minute more:


The British assault on the Dardanelles made a certain sense as long as it was a naval campaign, but when the Navy stalled and they decided to land ground troops, it became a great debacle. It ended Winston Churchill's career in the Admiralty and guaranteed he was never heard from again., (Well, almost.) The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) bore the brunt of the bloodshed, and ANZAC day is still their patriotic remembrance, as is blaming pommy bastards. So here's an early, silent, Aussie documentary about Gallipoli, restored by Kiwi Director Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame, with actual footage from the disastrous Dardanelles campaign, especially the ANZAC forces (just under three minutes):

And, from the other side, Turkish film footage of the Gallipoli campaign, with no narrative:

Mesopotamia and the Rest

A BBC documentary narrated by Sir Michael Redgrave, on the Mesopotamian campaign, though starting with a general introduction to the War in the Middle East generally and ending with the Palestine campaign. (Redgrave uses the pronunciation that was still official BBC into the 1970s at least: pronouncing "Sinai" as "SINE-ee-ai" for no visible reason. It's not pronounced that way in any language, including English, except by the BBC, and even they seem to have dropped it.) Mesopotamia, or Iraq, which the soldiers charmingly dubbed "Messpot," was a huge hemorrhage for the British Indian troops fighting there, though now largely forgotten. Some day I want to write something about General Townshend at Kut, a delusional man who surrendered the largest British Army (though largely Indian) to surrender between Yorktown (1781) and Singapore (1942). In prison, he convinced himself that he ended the war with Turkey, and bragged of this in his memoir. He was wrong.

The documentary includes the Allenby campaign as well. (Many of the same clips and even some of the interviews were in the BBC piece I ran on Veteran's Day, in the latter part. The BBC recycles, apparently.) It's in four parts, 10 minutes each; total about 40 minutes.


A documentary on Kemal Atatürk in (sonorous, somewhat stentorian) English, but Turkish made and sponsored. While it does go into the 1920s and 1930s, the bulk of it deals with the war and the Greek-Turkish war which followed it, so I think it qualifies. Kemal was the only Turkish military commander to perform really well in the war (at Gallipoli, no less). Be warned. This is pure Kemalist/Turkish nationalist propaganda, but with lots of old video and stills in it. But take it with a grain of salt: the video accompanying the (poorly supported by the Royal Navy) naval attempt to run the Dardanelles, leading to the Gallipoli disaster, looks more like Jutland to me than the outmoded ships Britain actually used. If they'd had those dreadnoughts at Gallipoli, the Ottomans would have given up Constantinople and there might not have been a Russian Revolution. Then again, some documentary maker probably thought, ships are ships.

If you're Greek, Armenian, British, or possibly anything other than Turkish, it will seem heavy-handed at times, but watch it for the video. (Long: an hour and 21 minutes.)

Israel on Alert about Lebanon

You can feel the temperature risin' in Lebanon, but Elvis has nothing to do with it. Israel's security cabinet is meeting today over concerns, in the wake of the CBC report leaking parts of the Special Tribunal on Lebanon's findings, Hizbullah might, as Ha'aretz puts it, "try to take over Lebanon."

This is probably just posturing but, combined with worries about a new Lebanese civil war, it reminds us that the STL is playing with fire. It's seeking justice, but even Rafiq Sa‘d Hariri, who would seem to have as much interest as anyone in solving his father's murder, is trying to dial back on the tensions.

Lebanon being Lebanon, he could ask Walid Jumblatt how he coped with his father's murder.

Diplomacy: It's Hard to Keep Track of What's PC

As Barbie supposedly might have said, Diplomacy is Hard: Let's Go Shopping. Apparently Fidel Castro recently said some nice things about Israel in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. Binyamin Netanyahu, who's not getting a lot of good press at the moment, apparently praised this, and President Shimon Peres sent a thank-you note of sorts.

Oops. The incoming Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, now that the Republicans have taken the House, is Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), a longtime staunch supporter of Israel but, trumping that, a Havana-born Cuban-American who represents Miami's Little Havana, so she sent Bibi word that, as much as she loves Israel, she hates Castro more. Netanyahu has now clarified his position: he only agrees with Castro when he praises Israel, not for any of that other stuff.

Glad we cleared that up.

Rami Khouri on Young Arab Opinion

Rami Khouri is almost always worth reading; he and Michael Young are among the few remaining reasons to check out the Beirut Daily Star, once the best English daily in the Arab world but now in its dotage. He has a good piece at Agence Globale he calls "Guide to the Young Arab World." It's brief (maybe succinct is the better word) and enlightening.

If you want to see the original report on which his column is based, it's here, though the file seems to take a while to load.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The STL, the CBC, and the Hariri Investigation

By now we've all been primed for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL)'s expected indictment of senior Hizbullah figures in the Hariri assassination. Though that hasn't happened yet, an apparent leak of details of the investigation has now provoked a lot of debate and armchair analysis. I'm not even going to try to summarize the story here, since the report, by CBC News, is lengthy, detailed, and includes charts. (The fact that the current chief of the STL, Daniel Bellemare, is Canadian comes to mind, but the CBC report by Neil Macdonald goes out of its way to note that Bellemare refused to be interviewed by the CBC.) Read the report first, so you'll know what the various blogosphere commenters are talking about.

Qifa Nabki has, of course, been on the case. A first posting here; a longer post raising various questions here; and a post in which reporter Macdonald responds to some of the questions raised.

Qifa also quotes commenter T_DESCO, who has posted analysis quoting earlier reports from the STL to raise questions about Macdonald's report over at Josh Landis' Syria Comment blog.

Of course this kind of point by point criticism of a leaked story suggests the leak itself was planted by someone. All of which reminds us that in a region where every event produces a related conspiracy theory, this one clearly was a conspiracy that involved a lot of people, reached into the Lebanese security services, and perhaps involved some deliberate false flags.

Read both the CBC report and the commentaries. They'll likely preoccupy Lebanese coffeehouse debates until the STL really does unveil its conclusions.

ICG on Sudan Referendum

This blog hasn't devoted much time to the approaching referendum in Sudan on January 9, and the real probability of a separation of the southern Sudan likely to follow it. Unless various major issues of citizenship, water, and control of the Abyei region are resolved by then, the dangers of conflict or even civil war cannot be completely excluded. As the referendum approaches, there's growing apprehension in neighboring Arab countries about the first potential secession in the region since Eritrea left Ethiopia.

I'll be watching the issue more closely as the deadline approaches, but the International Crisis Group has just released a report on the issue which can serve as a good backgrounder and analysis, including a look at potential scenarios. The summary is here; the full report in PDF is here; the first link also has links for French and Arabic versions.

Better Late than Never:

Those with long memories may remember an event last July when a Japanese tanker suffered damage from — something that exploded. Mine? Shell? Torpedo? Collision? At first there was a lot of denial, but evetually it was interpreted as a potential terrorist attack. My earlier posts are here.

Now the United States has weighed in and warned that it was a terrorist attack.

I'm sure the world's tanker traffic is grateful to know this. Four months later. To be fair, though, everyone concerned with oil security has been aware of this for some time.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Saudi Paper Criticizes British Press on Royals

This blog has taken no notice of Prince William's recent engagement; the ghost of my Irish great-grandmother would haunt me if I showed much interest in the House of Windsor. But I did find it amusing to see a writer in the Saudi English-language paper Arab News' indignation that the British press keeps running polls on whether Prince William, instead of his father, should succeed when Queen Elizabeth goes.

I'm sure it has absolutely nothing to do with the news that King ‘Abdullah is heading to the US for medical treatment and his Crown Prince also-ailing Prince Sultan (also in his 80s) is filling in, but the author is rather livid that the British press might speculate about lines of succession:

Since the public has no say whatsoever when it comes to the royal line of succession, such polls are not only inconsequential but are also hurtful to the royal family. The Daily Mail got into the act as well with a Harris poll showing 48 percent of respondents prefer King William to King Charles.

For one thing, such questions are premature when the queen at age 82 is still healthy and has sworn to serve as monarch until her last breath. Indeed, if she carries the same genes as the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother she could remain on the throne for up to 20 years. Any speculation as to who should succeed her is disrespectful and akin to dancing on her grave.

No, nothing to do with succession speculation anywhere else. No lèse majesté for us please, we're Saudi.

Good Review of SQCC Indian Ocean Site

My colleagues at the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, which is affiliated with MEI, maintain a great website on The Indian Ocean in History. If I haven't pointed you there before, I now have an incentive for doing so.

They've just received a very complimentary review of their Indian Ocean site — calling it "easily the most comprehensive website for studying and teaching Indian Ocean history currently available" — from the World History Sources site of the George Mason University Center for History and New Media. The review, by Kristin Lehner of Johns Hopkins University, opens with the following:

The Indian Ocean has been a zone of human interaction for several millennia, boasting a 1,500-year history of active high-seas trade before the arrival of Europeans in 1498. This website seeks to enhance the profile of Indian Ocean history, long neglected relative to the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean in both academic study and world history courses. To do so, it provides more than 800 primary sources, as well as ample contextual information and lesson plans, as a teaching tool for Indian Ocean history in upper elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. It is easily the most comprehensive website for studying and teaching Indian Ocean history currently available.

Primary sources, including maps, objects, and excerpts from travelers’ accounts and official documents, are accessible through seven chronological maps ranging from the Prehistoric Era (90,000 BCE to 7000 BCE) to the present. These primary sources, along with contextual information on commodities, peoples and cultures, trade and migratory routes, and the environment, are embedded into the maps through eight icon classes: documents, technologies, places, goods, geography, routes, travelers, and objects. These icons, numbering more than 50 for each map, are distributed in relevant geographic locations. Clicking on an icon calls up a short primary source excerpt and/or between one and three images, as well as some contextual information.

Read the entire review, and by all means visit the website itself.

Saudi King to US for Tests

Saudi King ‘Abdullah will undergo tests in the United States after hospitalization for back pain and a blood clot. This followed his delegating supervisory duties for the Hajj due to a slipped disc.

Though ‘Abdullah's health has not been as precarious as his Crown Prince/brother Prince Sultan's, he is 86 years old. Sultan, who will run the Kingdom in his absence, was himself absent for most of last year, undergoing surgery in the US and a long recovery period at his palace in Agadir, Morocco.

The Hajj supervision was delegated to Prince Nayef, considered unofficially next in line after Sultan. The advancing age of the senior generation is likely to provoke new speculation about when and how the succession will pass to the next generation, the grandsons of the founder.

The Ba‘thist Tendency in Mauritania

We haven't said much about Mauritania lately (which may be good because it's usually only their tendency to have coups that gets the attention of their neighbors), but Kal over at The Moor Next Door has an informative post on the Ba‘th Party/Tendency in Mauritania. I vaguely knew there were Ba‘this in Mauritania and that the Syrian and Iraqi wings of the Party both had sympathizers, but he's put together a lot of useful, if informal, background detail.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Weekend Historical Video: The 1956 Suez War

This week's "Weekend Historical Video" — again poaching from the wealth of YouTube so I can enjoy the weekend — is a BBC documentary on the 1956 Suez War. It doesn't carry a date but must be in the last few years since it includes much information that was only declassified after 40 years or more. [UPDATE: Looks like 2003.] But its strength is it contains, in addition to the inevitable talking heads, a lot of contemporary newsreel clips of Nasser, Eden, etc.

Now that 1956 is more than half a century in the past, the Suez War does not seem to occupy a very prominent place in most Westerners' collective memory; most aren't old enough to remember it. When it comes to Arab-Israeli wars, 1948 is enshrined in Israeli memory as the war of independence, and 1967 and 1973 are much studied as the formative matrices of the modern Middle East. Israel was a bit player in 1956, its invasion of Sinai a pretext (planned in advance) for the Anglo-French intervention. And in Britain and France, it's an incident best forgotten, the last death rattle of empire, when the once dominant powers were brought low by their erstwhile American ally, which turned out in those days to actually mean its anti-colonial rhetoric.

But Suez' memory is still alive in Egypt, for this was Nasser's finest hour, the defiant victory over the former colonial masters, his apotheosis as an Arab symbol, never completely erased even by the disaster of 1967. The victory over the "Tripartite aggression" is still a staple of school history in Egypt.

[In the documentary I do have one historical nit to pick. When discussing Nikita Khrushchev's nuclear threats against London and Paris, the documentary cuts to clips of a silo-launched missile and to another missile which is in fact an SA-2 surface-to-air missile. Neither of these was in service in 1956. The first Soviet ICBM, the R-7, was tested in 1957 (and launched Sputnik later that year) and none were silo-launched in the early days. The SA-2, which is an anti-aircraft defense, was also first introduced in 1957 and most famously demonstrated against Francis Gary Powers' U-2 in 1960. So those clips are anachronisms; though Khrushchev talked a lot about missiles, in those pre-Sputnik days most Westerners interpreted any nuclear threat as involving bombers.][End of Nitpick.]

The BBC documentary is in three parts, totaling about half an hour, below. Have a nice weekend.

More Rain in Mecca

Following Wednesday's rains during the Hajj, the second year in a row during which Mecca faced rain during the pilgrimage, heavy downpours struck again yesterday, as pilgrims were leaving Mina. This time at 3 pm, as the Hajj was approaching its end.

As noted Wednesday, this isn't likely when the Hajj advances into the summer months; most of Mecca's rare rain falls in November. But it makes this year's pilgrimage, like last year's, memorable, though the flooding last year appears to have been more dangerous.

China and the UAE

In a way this isn't news at all, since anyone who's been paying attention knows that China has been focusing closely on building up its presence in the Gulf. Still, reinforcing what we already know, here's a piece in this morning's The National of Abu Dhabi about China's concentrated interest in the UAE.

Admittedly, though, it's way down the web page from the lead, the Jonas Brothers' concert in Abu Dhabi. (And yes, with a 10-year-old daughter, I do know who they are.)

Somehow I think China's role in Abu Dhabi will last longer than the Jonas Brothers.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Israel to Withdraw from Ghajar, Partially at Least

The town of Ghajar, an ‘Alawite town in the Golan Heights on the Lebanese border, has been a thorny issue for years. You'll find this blog has revisited it many times, and that link in te previous sentence will also link you to YouTube video and podcasts of an MEI presentation by Asher Kaufman of Notre Dame, not to mention his article in the Middle East Journal (only free to subscribers; sorry). Well, it looks like after a lot of discussion, Israel is finally going to withdraw from the northern half of the town, which it acknowledges as Lebanese. The southern half, which was Syrian before 1967 (some argue the northern half was, too) remains under Israeli occupation like the rest of the Golan.

This being the Middle East, of course, it's not as simple as it sounds, or as immediate as it might be. Although the Security Cabinet has authorized the withdrawal, the details are being negotiated between Israel and the United Nations (emphatically not between Israel and Lebanon), since Israel wants UNIFIL to take over security, fearing the alternative will be Hizbullah.

And of course no one asked the residents of Ghajar. Israeli reports suggest they want Israel to remain, and are protesting the withdrawal.

Most Ghajar residents consider themselves Syrian, and say they were never considered a part of Lebanon; the town expanded northward during Israel's long occupation of South Lebanon from 1982 to 2000, and has been reunited since 2006. They fear partition will separate families, and owners from their farmland. Many accepted Israeli citizenship during the long years of occupation, and may fear retribution, especially if Hizbullah moves in. So while the end of occupation is a step forward, absent a solution to the Golan Heights as well, it may have unfortunate personal impact on those involved.

Also, stand by: Israel still has to negotiate the details with UNIFIL, and Israeli negotiations with the UN (unless they've worked it out behind closed doors already) may not be automatic.

Was Ras al-Khaimah Succession Not as Smooth as it Seemed?

Via The Arabist, a report from Current Intelligence claiming that the recent succession in Ras-Khaimah was not as smooth as it seemed at the time. This report claims the older son, the deposed Crown Prince Khalid bin Saqr, sought to claim the throne when his father died, until UAE forces moved in to guarantee the succession of Prince Saud, now the Ruler. For more on the dueling Crown Princes, see this post (and read the comments carefully: my commenters know RAK and I don't) and for all my Ras al-Khaimah posts, see here.

I don't know the reliability of this particular link but The Arabist seems to trust it, and I can assure you if this occurred it won't be in the UAE newspapers.

Stuxnet More Subtle than First Thought?

Remember the flap over Stuxnet? The alleged computer worm that may have deliberately targeted the Iranian nuclear program? (If not, click the link.) While the usual suspects (the US and Israel) plead that they know nothing (nothing!) this report in Wired suggests Stuxnet was a very subtle program aimed at introducing gradual, undetectable changes into a system.

The technical details are way beyond me, so I merely refer you to the article, since we've dealt with this story before. It does sound increasingly like Iran may have been the target.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

As Hajj Ends, Rain Falls in Mecca ... Again

On the second day of stoning the devil, as the Hajj draws to an end, the skies have opened and it has rained in Mecca and Mina. Many hajjis are seeing it as a sign from heaven that their sacrifices have been acceptable. And curiously, last year heavy rains and flooding hit Mecca at the beginning of the Hajj.

Average precipitation in Mecca is just over an inch a year, which would seem to suggest something unusual is happening for it to rain two years running, but then again, more than half of that inch of rain falls in November, and since the feast moves around the calendar, and has been in November the past two years, perhaps it's natural. Or global warming.

Talabani Won't Sign Tariq ‘Aziz Death Warrant

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has said he will never sign the death warrant for former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq ‘Aziz. He reportedly said he would not do so because of ‘Aziz' age (74) and because he is an Iraqi Christian. But the BBC report notes that one of the two Vice Presidents signed the warrant for the execution of Saddam Hussein. But the Vice President's have not yet been formally chosen for Talabani's new term. France, Russia, and the EU and Vatican have all protested the death sentence against ‘Aziz.

New Coptic-Muslim Violence in Upper Egypt

There's been a new outbreak of Muslim-Christian violence in Upper Egypt, in Qena governorate, where several houses have been burned following tensions over an alleged romance between a Christian man and a Muslim woman. More here. These sporadic outbursts continue to be a problem, and coming at a time when tensions between Copts and Muslims have been unusually high, they will probably draw more international attention than usual. This may be an isolated incident and it sounds as if the security forces moved quickly to contain it, so I'll reserve analysis until we know more (if we ever do).

Kamal al-Shazli, ex-Egyptian Party Boss, Dies

A longtime Egyptian political veteran has died almost on the eve of the Parliamentary elections. Kamal al-Shazli (Shazly) has been in Parliament since the Nasser era, was formerly a senior figure in the ruling National Democratic Party (and its predecessors, the Arab Socialist Union under Nasser and the Misr Party under Sadat), and represented his Delta constituency continously for 46 years.

In recent years he had been ailing, and had given up his leadership posts to members of the
"New Guard" aligned with Gamal Mubarak; he himself was considered part of the NDP "Old Guard," like Safwat al-Sharif and others. (Oddly, in recent days there had been rumors he had died, and he reportedly threatened to sue a rival candidate for spreading the story. Apparently now that suit won't be filed.)

Issandr El-Amrani has an appreciation here; there's an Arabic obituary here; and a look at the fact that since nominations are closed, the NDP may lose the seat.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

‘Id Mubarak: The Feast of ‘Id al-‘Adha

‘Id Mubarak to my Muslim readers. ‘Id al-‘Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice or Greater ‘Id (also Qurban Bayram and many other names in many languages), begins today. The major festival of the Muslim year (the other major feast being the ‘Id that ends Ramadan), it coincides with the sacrifice carried out in Mecca in conjunction with the Hajj.

Last year, the ‘Id overlapped with the American Thanksgiving holiday, so my greetings were offered without much background. But since this blog is intended to educate as well as entertain, I'd like to take a little more time with it this year.

The Feast of Sacrifice is generally seen as the most important religious feast, hence the fact that it is often called the ‘Id al-Kabir or "Greater ‘Id," and it coincides with the central ritual of Islam, the fifth pillar of Islam, the hajj. Animals are sacrificed (the meat then distributed to the poor) in a ritual of great antiquity, one Muslims themselves say partially predates Islam itself.

What most non-Muslims probably do not know is the fact that, like the hajj itself, the ‘Id commemorates a story known to Jews and Christians as well: God's demand that Abraham sacrifice his son, only to relent and substitute an animal sacrifice when Abraham had demonstrated his obedience even in such a horrific task. The Qur'an and Islamic tradition say the son was Isma‘il (Ishmael in the Bible) rather than Isaac (Ishaq in the Qur'an) as in the Book of Genesis, but the story and its moral is virtually identical.

Now, these days Abraham, venerated by Judaism (Avraham), Christianity (Abraham), and Islam (Ibrahim) is often more of a source of conflict among the three faiths which claim him than a unifying factor, but he is a shared Patriarch of all three "Abrahamic" faiths: Our Father Abraham to Jews, the "first Muslim" and "friend of God" to Muslims, and a familiar patriarch to Christians, though he is not quite so central for them. Whether you consider Abraham a historical figure, a mythic culture hero, a Bronze Age myth or some combination of these, he is a potent symbol, and as I have noted, his tomb in Hebron is second only to the Temple Mount/Haram in Jerusalem as a disputed holy place.

The story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, whether Isaac or Ishmael, strikes most modern people as something incomprehensible, but his absolute obedience is central to the symbolic message of the story: his profound obedience is what led God to proclaim his covenant with Abraham.

The hajj itself is profoundly linked to the Abraham story: the running between Safa and Marwa, part of the ritual, reflects Hagar's search for water for the infant Isma‘il, rewarded by the discovery of the well Zamzam, the water of which is drunk by every hajji, and the sacrifice of an animal today represents the sacrifice of Abraham. The Ka‘aba itself is said to have been first built by Abraham.

Despite the profound divisions Abraham's legacy sometimes creates today, the Abrahamic core of this particular feast could potentially, in some alternate universe, make it a potential meeting place for the three "Abrahamic" faiths.

Interestingly, Arab News, a Saudi English-language daily whose readership includes not only Westerners but many South Asians, including non-Muslims, takes this sort of "ecumenical" tack in its editorial today, seeking to link the interfaith dialogue promoted by King ‘Abdullah with the Abrahamic common ground the feast invokes. If such sentiments could prevail year round and not just on holidays, the region might be a better place.

‘Id Mubarak wa Sa‘id.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The F-35s for Settlements Deal

It now looks as if Binyamin Netanyahu will impose a 90-day moratorium on settlement building, in exchange for the package of incentives offered by the Obama Administration, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The proposal is expected to split Israel's diplomatic/security Cabinet, which must approve it. Since the religious Shas Party is expected to abstain, Netanyahu is likely to be able to count on about seven votes for the proposal, versus six against, for the narrowest possible win, by one vote.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, from Labor, has said the defense package is more important than Likud's internal quarrels.

Israel had already ordered 20 of the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighters, but the cost of the package was controversial; the US offer now would apparently provide them free in return for the 90-day setltement freeze.

Some are comparing the situation to 1991, when the George H.W. Bush Administration threatened to withhold loan guarantees unless Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir agreed to the Madrid Peace Conference. But the present incentive package seems to be all carrot, while that instance was mostly stick.

Mark Lynch today sagely asks, "What if they don't solve Israeli-Palestinian borders in 90 days?"
As he notes:
It's easy to be skeptical. The United States seems to be giving a lot for a temporary fix which only kicks the can down the road another few months, while neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians seem to see this as a moment of opportunity. The deal only makes sense if serious progress on reaching agreement on borders can be made in three months. But the three months in question include Thanksgiving, the Eid al-Adha, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Years, and the seating of the new U.S. Congress. Even if the parties have already sketched out the contours of the deal -- and I sure hope they did that spadework before committing themselves to such a high-stakes deadline, though I'm kind of afraid that they didn't -- experience suggests that getting that deal through the Israeli and Palestinian systems won't be easy. Since the United States promises not to ask for another extension, the 90-day deadline gives all kinds of incentives for those who don't really want a deal to stall. Oh, all right… I'm skeptical.
So am I, mostly because of the sense of deja vu. We are essentially bribing Israel for a 90 day freeze, but for all the reasons noted above, does anyone really think the next 90 days are going to produce an agreement? And then what? Do we ante up more F-35s?

If Netanyahu does carry the deal by a single vote in the security Cabinet, he'll be unlikely to take even greater risks for future extensions. The present coalition, which is mostly to the right of Netanyahu, is hard to envision making hard decisions on settlements, but unless Netanyahu is ready to fight new elections for peace (which he's shown no sign of being eager to do), I'm not sure we'll be getting our money's worth.

Class and the Hajj

The Hajj is traditionally a great leveller: since pilgtrims all wear the ihram clothing so there is no visible distinction of class. But, as this report from Al-Jazeera English points out, distinctions between rich and poor have re-emerged in an era of five-star hotels:

Hajj 1431: The Day of ‘Arafat

Yesterday an estimated two million or more Muslims gathered at the locale in Mecca known as Mina; today they proceed to Mount ‘Arafat, as they continue the ancient (in fact, pre-Islamic even by Muslim accounts) rituals of the hajj. Muslims around the world are preparing to celebrate the Feast of Sacrifice (‘Id al-‘Adha)simultaneous with the concluding rituals of the hajj.

King ‘Abdullah is said to be suffering from a slipped disc; Interior Minister Prince Nayif is accordingly overseeing this year's hajj.

The hajj is most likely the largest annual gathering of human beings at one time for a common purpose. More as it continues.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Weekend Historical Video: FDR Meets Ibn Saud

For this weekend's historical video, the meetings between Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Farouq, Haile Selassie, and King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa‘ud ("Ibn Saud") in the Suez Canal in February 1945. FDR was returning from the Yalta Conference on the USS Quincy.

The first film clip is partially in color; though the two clips show the same events there are some differences in detail.

The US Marine Corps colonel appearing in the meetings with Roosevelt and Ibn Saud is Colonel Bill Eddy, the US Minister to Saudi Arabia. You can find an account of the meeting written by Eddy here. For more about Eddy, see my MEI colleague Tom Lippman's 2008 book,
Arabian Knight: Colonel Bill Eddy USMC and the Rise of American Power in the Middle East.

I note that both newsreels say that this is the first time Ibn Saud had left his Kingdom. I guess they mean since he became King; he spent his youth in exile in Kuwait until he led the raid on Riyadh that expelled the Rashid family and restored the Sauds, beginning the formation of the Kingdom.

As Hajj Approaches, Mecca's New Metro Awaited

We've mentioned Mecca's planned new Metro system before. With the hajj coming up in the next few days, it's still being reported that the Metro will be open, partially, in time for the Hajj pilgrims to ride it.

I'll have more as appropriate, and will cover the hajj more fully next week.

Ibrahim Eissa in CJR

Fired Egyptian Editor Ibrahim Eissa now has a column again online, at what is now called "The Original Dostor" (since he, not the company, owned the domain name), but this interview in the Columbia Journalism Review is of interest.

Iraq Deadlock Broken: Maliki is PM Again

Eight months after the March 7 elections, a deal has been struck allowing Parliament to vote, leading to the re-election of Jalal Talabani as President and his subsequent appointment of Nuri al-Maliki as Prime Minister. Due to a falling-out over part of the deal, ‘Iyad ‘Allawi's Iraqiyya bloc has walked out of Parliament (though their candidate was awarded the Speakership), but at least the deadlock has been broken.

For more details see the always essential Reidar Visser here; also see Juan Cole here.

World-Class Falafel Bagger

For something a bit lighter, from The Arabist, who got it via Anonymous Arabist, a falafel bagger who would hold the Guinness record, no doubt, if they had a category for falafel bagging, in a restaurant in Jenin:

Thursday, November 11, 2010

For Veteran's Day/Remembrance Day/Armistice Day; WWI in the Middle East Videos

For the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, on the 92nd anniversary of the end of the Great War that did not, in fact, end wars, some old video in a documentary found on YouTube. Little info provided on the source, but the narration's British and it's embeddable, so I presume I'm not infringing. Video includes such things as the Mesopotamia campaign, Allenby entering Jerusalem, etc. The Middle East as we know it begins with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Here are some actual videos of its death throes. Consider it an early bonus to my new feature, Weekend Historical Videos.

Let me end, as I did last year, with a comment I made then and a video of Last Post in honor of what the Brits still call Remembrance Day:
Though Turkey (well, the Ottoman Empire) left the war a little bit earlier than November 11 (the Mudros Armistice was October 30), it was the war that really made the modern Middle East as well, or perhaps laid the groundwork for most of the battles of today: the Balfour Declaration, Hussein/McMahon correspondence, and the sore that still plagues Armenians and Turks, not to mention Greeks and Turks, and most of the territorial disputes in the region. I've always wished I'd used the title The Peace to End All Peace, but David Fromkin got there first in a highly readable book on the postwar Middle East settlements. (Actually, the line was first used, I believe, in 1066 and All That.)For many years, and perhaps still in parts of Europe, people would observe two minutes of silence at 11 am on 11/11. If it has taken you two minutes to read this, perhaps you just did as well . . .
Unfortunately, the war did not end all wars, and may have made several inevitable. But remembrance may help, in some small way, to remind us of what was once one of the major observances in the Western world.

Final Results of Jordan Elections

From the Jordan Times, for those of you who care, here are the final results of Jordan's Parliamentary elections.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

New Wave of Attacks on Christians in Baghdad

Ten days after the killing of hostages at the Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad and only three days after an Iraqi archbishop in Britain urged Iraqi Christians to leave the country, and the day after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki urged them to stay, there has been a new wave of attacks on Christians and Christian targets in Baghdad. As Juan Cole notes, the radical Islamists accuse Christians of collaborating wit the occupier, but in fact many Christians supported Saddam Hussein; they are really collateral damage within the sectarian conflict generally. As Cole alsonotes, the failure to form a new government is in part to blame for the declining security situation.

Christianity reached Mesopotamia early, spreading from the early Christian center of Edessa (now Sanliurfa in eastern Turkey). The liturgy of the Iraqi Church of the East is believed to be the oldest Christian liturgical prayer still in use anywhere, dating from the third century AD. During the centuries when the two river valleys were under Persian rule and not part of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Church of the East (labeled "Nestorian" by Christians to the West; also called the Assyrian Church) became a major source of missions to India and as far afield as China. These ancient churches survived the coming of Islam, the Mongol invasions, and much else. The Assyrians had a difficult 20th century: facing Turkish hostility in World War I. Many did serve with the British Mandate in Iraq and were seen as collaborators; in1932 Iraq became independent, and in 1933 there was a wave of massacres of Assyrians.

Under the secularist Baath the Christians faced no more oppression than their fellow Iraqis; Tariq Aziz, one of Saddam's senior aides (and recently condemned to death) was raised a Chaldean Catholic. Christian Iraqis have been dwindling in numbers since the 1991 Gulf War, with the pace accelerating since the 2003 occupation. Other minority faiths, Yazidis and Mandaeans for example, have also been targeted.

Some reports indicate that those injured today include Muslims who were rushing to the aid of their Christian neighbors. That may be the only good news out of these recent events.

No Surprises in Jordan Results

No surprises here: the new Jordanian Parliament will be dominated by pro-Government elements, tribally aligned candidates, and King's Men. The Islamic Action Front boycott and revised electoral rules pretty much guaranteed the result. At least one IAF member who ran did win, and there'll be 13 women: 12 seats are reserved for women and another won on her own.

Early Take on Jordan Elections

The Jordanian elections yesterday saw at least one person killed in violence in a town near Kerak. With turnout claimed to be 53% of registered voters, it's down from 58.9% in 2007, possibly due to the boycott by the Islamic Action Front. The Jordan Times has a page of links to election day stories. I had not realized the election date was also the fifth anniversary of the Amman hotel bombing of 2005.

With the Islamic Action Front (essentially, the Muslim Brotherhood) boycotting, nobody is going to be sitting by the TV watching the vote count. The IAF boycotted because an electoral reform (or "reform" if you prefer) weakened urban candidates at the expense of rural, where the monarchy's traditional tribal support lies.

Above right, the King watches returns at the Interior Ministry, watched over by a picture of himself.

New Violence in Western Sahara

The situation in Western Sahara is of long standing, but Morocco's dominion and POLISARIO's marginalization have seemed to be givens for some time. This week, however, there has been renewed violence. I'm not current on this, and The Moor Next Door admits he isn't either, but onetime Maghreb blogger and frequent commenter "alle" (who also comments here from time to time) has done a guest post for The Moor. I refer you to it for a quick briefing.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Election Day in Jordan

It's election day in Jordan. Almost a year ago, the King dissolved Parliament and called for "early" elections. A year seems to be "early."

For Arabic readers, here's a website.
For others, here's a piece at Carnegie on the Islamic Action Front (AKA Muslim Brotherhood) boycott. And at Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel, a piece on prospects for electoral reform and another on the boycott and other issues.

I'm not a Jordan expert, so I'll let others do most of the heavy lifting here, but let's wait until we see the results. Most of the experts see things as pretty retrograde in terms of real democracy: the King is not encouraging opposition. After the vote, I'll comment at greater length.

Ramses III in Saudi Arabia

Some 3200 or so year old news: The Saudis have announced the first discovery of an Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription in the Kingdom. It was found at the oasis of Tayma, known to be on several key historical trade routes. Another, Saudi account, here.

It contains the cartouche (left) of the great New Kingdom Pharaoh Ramses III (1186-1155 BC or a bit later depending on disputes about chronology).

Ramses III is known as the Pharaoh ruling during the invasion of the so-called "Sea Peoples" (memorialized in the Temple of Karnak) at the time of the "catastrophe" that concluded the Bronze Age (also roughly the period of the Trojan War, if there was one). His temple at Medinat Habu is in ruins near the Valley of the Kings.

For those who appreciate historical context, a number of the Saudi and other news reports note the distance from the find to the great Saudi monumental site of Mada'in Salih, a Nabatean city. Very informative, though, of course, Mada'in Salih flourished about — um, let's see,— 1200 or so years after Ramses III. You know, kind of like the relation of Charlemagne to Microsoft.

Omar Effendi Again Has Egyptian Owners

This is one of those posts for the old Egypt hands, and may mean little to anyone else. Omar Effendi, Egypt's biggest department store chain, has been bought back by Egyptian investors after several years in Saudi hands. Descendant of a mercantile enterprise founded in the mid-1850s, it's a shopping institution. Comparing it to Macy's or Harrods would be misleading but not completely so, since it's a national institution, and I mostly knew it in its days as a nationalized institution with all the efficiency that "Egyptian state-run institution" implies. Like most of the big department stores, it was nationalized after the 1952 Revolution, mostly privatized more recently, though the state still holds a percentage. (The 1946 ad at left, complete with Royal "By Appointment to ..." logo, oddly uses pictures of fellahin, but is a reminder of its institutional status.)

The new ownership is Egyptian again, though there've been some questions about the purchase, and apparently the head of the investment company that bought it, Mohamed Metwalli, is alleged to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood. I have no idea if that's true, but many MB supporters are very much committed to capitalism. (His wife is from the Lokma family, also said to have links to the Brotherhood, and owners of Groppi, the tea room/cafe/chocalatier institution. (The Lokmas are also said to have Brotherhood links, and Groppi's Bar closed decades ago when the once-Italian institution fell under devout Muslim ownership. I remember Groppi's Bar. I'm old.)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Should Ehud Barak Head Mossad?

With Meir Dagan approaching the end of his term as chief of Mossad, there's been considerable speculation about his replacement. Under Dagan, there's been considerable turnover among the deputies, with several senior figures resigning or being reassigned, and now, according to Amir Oren in today's Ha'aretz, neither Shin Bet Chief Yuval Diskin or Military Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin is eager to take the job. So Oren, after discussing the strengths and weaknesses of Diskin and Yadlin, suggests (perhaps with some encouragement?) another candidate: Ehud Barak. Barak, the current Defense Minister, was an intelligence professional and special operator before he was a politician.

This may just be a trial balloon, but I thought I'd call it to your attention.

Calling on Iraqi Christians to Leave Iraq?

A senior Syriac Orthodox Archbishop in Great Britain has called ln his fellow Iraqi Christians to leave the country, in the wake of the recent church massacre there. Al-Jazeera English has a report here:

It's obviously a regrettable development since so many Iraqi Christians have already departed; these ancient churches held on through the millennia, though the rise of Islam, changes of dynasties, wars and revolutions, but are slowly giving up and emigrating today. One wants to encourage them to stay, but human beings will choose the safety of their families (and the promise of the West) when facing danger. Robert Fisk in The Independent recently surveyed the exodus of Christians not just from Iraq but from Israel and the West Bank, Lebanon and Egypt.

The STL Nears its Indictments

Once again, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon seems on the verge of issuing its indictments, expected to include several senior Hizbullah figures. I last discussed the issue a couple of weeks ago, and am not sure I have much new to say.

Marc Lynch, on the other hand, does. He wonders if the STL has any credibility today, or if it's just a "zombie" panel from an earlier reality. And he asks:

What are we to make of its really quite shocking reversal? Why should we consider the evidence now pointing to Hezbollah credible given the seeming collapse of the supposedly iron-clad case against Syria? Most discussion of this fairly obvious point that I've seen in the Western media has been framed around Hezbollah's "efforts to discredit the STL." But the STL's credibility problems seem a bit more real than that. If Hezbollah were really responsible than a strong case could be made for pursuing justice regardless of the consequences. But from the outside, it really does look an awful lot like the STL is being used as a political weapon against Hezbollah at a time of mounting fears of its power and of allegedly rising Iranian influence in Lebanon.
That's the problem. Caesar's wife is no longer above suspicion, and the STL shifted suspects in mid-investigation. One can hardly blame former security chief Jamil al-Sayyed, unpleasant a person though he may be, for demanding that those "false witnesses" who kept him in detention for years without charge, be punished. It's not just an explosive situation because of Hizbullah's activities: many Arab observers have seen the STL's dramatic shift of course and see it as politicized, and that undercuts both its credibility and that of the UN.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A New Feature: Weekend Historical Video: I: The Return of Saad Zaghloul

I used to offer "Weekend Readings" on Fridays, but so many other sites are providing links to new reports from think tanks etc. that I now only link to those I find personally worth noting. Since I don't post on weekends, I've decided to introduce a new feature to give you something to look at over the weekend.

The rich collections of old video on YouTube and old photos on Flickr offer great insight into Middle Eastern history, and I've embedded lots of historical videos on this blog already. I've decided to select old videos (usually: perhaps occasionally stills) on one subject of historical interest and post for your weekend perusal. I may miss some weekends and I may lose interest, but let's try it out.

I decided to start with something very early in the era of video of the modern Middle East, video from 1923. Saad Zaghloul (Sa‘d Zaghlul) Pasha (1857-1927) may not be a household name today, outside of Egypt, but he is one of that country's great national heroes, and his photo is still prominently displayed by the Wafd Party, which he founded. A nationalist follower of Ahmad ‘Orabi, he worked against the British occupation and was jailed periodically. At the end of World War I, taking Woodrow Wilson's 14 Points at face value, he created an Egyptian delegation (Arabic: wafd) to the Paris Peace Conference. This time the British not only arrested him but exiled him to the Seychelles. One result was the Egyptian Reovlution of 1919, which in turn led to a grant of independence (though with a great many limitations on true sovereignty) to Egypt in 1922. In 1923, Zaghloul returned from exile to a hero's welcome, and in early 1924 he was elected Prime Minister in elections swept by his Wafd Party, taking its name from the delegation he sought to take to Paris. In November that year he resigned after less than a year as Prime Minister, and died in 1927. Though he actually led Egypt for less than a year, he is an icon of Egyptian nationalism: his house (Bayt al-Umma, home of the nation)( and his tomb are preserved in central Cairo. He is still venerated by the Wafd and little invoked by the government for that reason, but his statue stands at one end of one of the main bridges, facing the city. He is said to have used the motto in colloquial Egyptian " kulla haga mumkin," : "everything is possible," but his last words were " ma fish fayda" : "It's no use."

The two videos I've chosen to launch the series are of Zaghloul Pasha's 1923 return: one shows him aboard ship and after his return; the second is a video of the crowds welcoming him. Though there are some captions the videos of course were silent in 1923, so you don't need Arabic.

They're Off! . . . But Not All of them Are Running

It's November, and the Egyptian Parliamentary elections are November 28. Though hardly free and fair, the Parliamentary runs are competitive and the opposition does have some chance to make their voice heard.

On the first day for presenting candidates, 75 Muslim Brotherhood candidates were able to file thei candidacy but another 57 were barred; (also IkhwanWeb here and an Arabic account here).

On related subjects, Issander El Amrani on repeating patterns of previous elections; and also, Michele Dunne on the competition for NDP nominations, with much on the NDP, the role of NDP independents, the postponement of the Party's Congress, etc.

Egypt's Muslims Rally to Back Copts after Al-Qa‘ida Threat

It's been a rough year for Coptic-Muslim relations in Egypt, as noted previously. Not so long ago, some Islamists were even questioning whether Copts should be citizens. So what does it take to persuade members of the Muslim Brotherhood to pledge to defend the Copts?

If you know Egypt, you may well guess: some non-Egyptians are making threats. In this case it's the Al-Qa‘ida-linked "Islamic State of Iraq." The group claimed responsibility for the hostage taking during Sunday services at an Armenian Catholic church in Baghdad last Sunday; some 60 people died either at the hands of the hostage-takers or during the rescue. The Islamic State of Iraq announced that Iraqi Christians were legitimate targets who would be "exterminated" if al-Qa‘ida militants in Iraq were not released, and also demanded that Egyptian Copts would become a target if they did not release "the Muslim women held hostage in its churches" referring to the Camillia Shehata affair and a similar case, Wafaa Constantine. The church denies that the two women are being held for trying to convert to Islam.

In the wake of the Iraqi threat, Egyptian security forces reportedly stepped up security around churches, and warned that the controversial bishop Anba Bishoi, whose previous comments about Islam stirred protests., might become a target. The head of al-Azhar, members of the Brotherhood, and other senior Muslim officials quickly denounced the threat and pledged to defend Egyptian Christians.

While the threat did remind many of the claimed conversion cases, the fact that much of Egypt's Muslim leadership sprang to the defense of the Church was, as Pope Shenouda III noted in his weekly Wednesday sermon, a positive result of the threat.

And Egyptian Muslim institutions showed that they would support their own fellow citizens against foreign threats.