A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, January 31, 2011

Al-‘Ubur al-Thani

Egyptian Armed Forces Day is currently celebrated on October 6, the anniversary of the Army's proudest moment, al-‘Ubur (the Crossing): the crossing of the Suez Canal and attack on the Bar-Lev line in 1973.

If the Army announcement of today holds firm, January 31 may deserve to be celebrated as al-‘ubur al-thani, the second great Crossing. Crowds were chanting, "the Army and the People are one."

The Man Who Never Speaks, Speaks

Vice President ‘Omar Suleiman has gone on Egyptian TV to say that he has been entrusted to begin negotiations with the opposition in the next days. The man whose face never appeared in newspapers till a few years ago is now the apparent face of the government, as Mubarak remains wherever he may be. (Sharm al-Sheikh?, surrounded by those troops the Israelis approved deploying?)

Combined with the Army statement, I suspect the beginning of a transition, in which General Suleiman and perhaps the Army command discuss with the opposition's representatives what comes next.

I don't think Suleiman would be accepted by the opposition as a long-term leader, but as someone the Army would trust he could be used to usher in a transition.

If not the beginning of the end, at least, to steal from Churchill, also addressing an Egyptian subject (El Alamein), today's events may be the end of the beginning.

But tomorrow may be tense. Amid talk of a huge demonstration assembling from all over the country tomorrow, the government has halted train service throughout Egypt. After shutting down the Internet, the phones (now back), the banks (and the ATMs are out too, perhaps due to the Internet), Egypt has now committed itself to guaranteeing the trains won't run on time.

The Egyptian Army at Crunchtime

The Egyptian Army today issued a statement that includes the following:
The presence of the army in the streets is for your sake and to ensure your safety and wellbeing. The armed forces will not resort to use of force against our great people.

While warning against acts of sabotage and terrorism, the Army statement reaffirmed that freedom of expression is everyone's right.

Coming as it does amid many rumors of an imminent crackdown — tanks blocking access to Midan Tahrir, concrete barricades going up — the Army seems to be trying to reassure the demonstrators. Of course, it isn't clear who is speaking for the Army from the reports so far.

It could, of course, be misreported, and indeed one can argue about its meaning, but it would appear to reassure Tahrir will not become Tienanmen.

And if that's the case, Husni Mubarak probably should start planning a graceful exit before he has a Ben Ali-style search for an airport that would let him land.

It isn't exactly "Communique Number One," the traditional announcement of a military coup, but it may someday be seen as the turning point of this crisis.

In the 1980s I dealt with the Egyptian Army quite a bit, and will have a lot more to say on the subject. For now, I'm struck by the fact that in most of the radio and press interviews I've done the past few days, I've been asked about the Muslim Brotherhood, which seems to be the focus of many American reporters. The Army is by far the more important player, at least at this crunch moment, and perhaps the likely bridging institution for a transition of power.

And now such a scenario seems even more likely. The Army has chosen not too sully the high regard Egyptians have for it (and perhaps keeping $1.3 billion in US military aid was also a motive). The 35,000 Tunisian Armed Forces managed to midwife the departure of Ben Ali. Egypt's Armed Forces, some 450,000 strong and the world's tenth largest active force, were always critical to the outcome here. If this is really their position, things could move quickly now.

Israel Allows Egyptian Troop Increase in Sinai

Israel has agreed to allow an additional 800 Egyptian troops to deploy in Sinai, in addition to those previously allowed near the borders of Gaza. Under the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Sinai is demilitarized.

Press reports say the new troops will be deployed around the resort city of Sharm al-Sheikh in the south.

I am sure it is a total coincidence that many Egyptians assume Husni Mubarak is in his palace in Sharm al-Sheikh and that his televised appearances are coming from there.

Day Seven

The high drama of last Friday seems to have been replaced with a sort of continuing tension as the two sides in Egypt are eyeball to eyeball waiting for someone to blink. I think so far I'd read today as a day of mixed signals. The return of police to the streets seems to have been well handled: they deployed the traffic police, a whole different matter than the Central Security Forces. It provides a presence, but not a confrontational one. Meanwhile, the spread of the neighborhood committees may be the real revolutionary movement, since locals providing their own security are, in effect, creating government from below.

The new Cabinet isn't all that new, the major development there being the replacement of Interior Minister Habib al-Adly with Mahmoud Wagdi. Reports I've seen say he once headed the Prison Bureau, which doesn't make him sound very much of a reformer, but he's said to have had a falling-out with Adly, so the President may consider him a symbol of change, though I doubt the demonstrators will agree.

A commenter noted yesterday the potential importance of the decision by many Azhar faculty, key judges, and other prominent representatives of civil society to join the demonstrators in Tahrir, further broadening support for the protests. In fact, I gather many Egyptian celebrities — sports stars, TV personalities, etc. — are now showing up. Midan al-Tahrir is the place to be. That is a sign that many pillars of Egyptian society are now joining what they may see as the right side of history, or at least the one likely to win.

Meanwhile, the government crackdown on Al Jazeera led to the confiscation of their cameras and arrest of six journalists, though the six have now been released. Al Jazeera English for the past couple of days has been talking to their reporters without naming them, for safety reasons. Both their Arabic and English services are reporting thoroughly despite the difficulties. So, once again, the live-streaming Al Jazeera English coverage:

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Strange Day

How to sum up today in Egypt? Although the news channels are full of wall-to-wall coverage, not a lot is really clear at the end of the day. The government did not name the new Cabinet, though the Defense Minister appeared on TV. The Army beefed up its presence but did not crack down on the protesters. Yet two F-16s buzzed Central Cairo as the curfew began: what does that mean?

I suspect there are divisions in he leadership about what to do next. The Army does not want to jeopardize its reputation with the people, but if ordered to crack down hard, would it obey? I'm not sure anyone knows. Tomorrow may explain what's been going on.

Mohamed ElBaradei made his move today, and he and a number of respected dissidents were set up as a committee to try to negotiate a transitional unity government — if they can find anyone to talk to them. Still, at least there are faces who can provide a responsible transition. I'm not sure ElBaradei has the fire in him to lead a new government, but as one of Egypt's more experienced diplomats,he could help negotiate a transition.
The longer this goes on, the more likely I fear the hopes for a peaceful transition will fade: and then the choice becomes stark: either the government goes peacefully or we face the danger of Tahrir Square looking like Tienanmen Square. Or, the Army refuses an order and we have the Tunisian situation, which could be the best outcome.

One thing the government may have miscalculated (well, one of many): if the withdrawal of the police was intended to create anarchy and lead most Egyptians to beg for the government to come back, the resourcefulness of Egyptians in creating neighborhood committees and patrolling their neighborhoods (at least in Alexandria there are now said to be popular committees covering the whole city) has shown them something they may not have realized before: they can organize their own government services if needed. That could be the most important lesson of all.

Again: Al Jazeera English Streaming Feed

I won't be up this early and I'll be in and out today (Sunday) so I'm setting up a pre-scheduled post once again linking to Al Jazeera English's streaming video. If like me you don't get Al Jazeera English on cable I want to make available this running commentary, despite Egypt's crackdown on them. I'll check in through the day as I can. A long scheduled gathering today associated with my wife's birthday last week may mean I won't be able to post instantly, but I should still be able to check in.

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera English:

Was it Something I Said?

Traffic in January, not counting RSS feeds:
Thank you. Please tell your friends. Or better still, link, Tweet, or Facebook.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Army Protects Protesters from Police

I heard several reports about this but just found the video. Riot police are moving towards demonstrators. Three Army APCs move in front of the protesters. As the protesters surge around them, the soldiers escort them behind the line of APCs. The Army protects the protesters from the police.

I'm pretty sure those are US provided M-113s. With all the publicity given to the "Made in USA" teargas canisters, this makes me a little happier about my tax dollars at work.

Remembering Egypt's Revolution of 1919

A little while ago on CNN Shibley Telhami noted that this uprising in Egypt is much more of a revolution than the so-called "Revolution of 1952," essentially a military coup by the Free Officers. The rioting on "Black Saturday" that year was more revolutionary, and — has anyone noted this? — Black Saturday was on January 26, while the current uprising started January 25!

But that's not my point here. A much better model for what we are seeing now is what Egyptians have always called the "Revolution of 1919" (thawra 1919), though many English histories follow the British colonial usage and call it an uprising. Like 2011, 1919 had no clear leadership and was largely a genuine popular uprising. It had its own flag, with the crescent and the cross to show both Muslims and Copts supported it, a symbol which the Wafd continued to use and which I've seen a variant of in at least one crowd scene in the past few days.

Saad (Sa‘d) Zaghloul, right, whose return to Egypt from exile in 1923 was the subject of my first Weekend Historical Video post, was the indirect cause; when the British exiled him and the Wafd Party leadership to Malta to prevent their participation in the Paris Peace Conference, Egyptians (and Sudanese) rose against British rule. Students, workers, religious figures and others rose in protest, and in the countryside there were bloody attacks against British facilities, troop trains, and individuals.

The British responded to the bloodshed, which lasted for months, by replacing High Commissioner Reginald Wingate with a military hero, Field Marshal Viscount Allenby, and sending an investigating commission under Lord Milner to study the situation. Though British accounts tend to see the rising as having eventually been put down, Egyptians note that the Milner Commission recommended an end to the Protectorate and thus the revolt led directly to the British declaring Egypt independent in 1922.

It was a limited independence; Britain retained troops in the Canal Zone and the right to deploy them elsewhere in wartime (as they did in World War II during the North African campaign). Sudan was made an Anglo-Egyptian condominium. But Zaghloul returned from exile and the Wafd swept to power.

The 1919 Revolution is little remembered today outside of Egypt, but it is probably a much better analog of the current uprising than the military coups of Ahmad ‘Orabi in 1881 or the Free Officers of 1952.

Note too that in both the pictures shown here (other than Zaghloul and the flag), women, though veiled, are highly visible.

Qifa Nabki Explains What Mubarak is Thinking

Qifa Nabki discusses Mubarak's strategy.

If you came in late, he's referring to how this picture:

became this picture in Al-Ahram last year:

Rearranging Deck Chairs or Preparing a Transition?

I can think of two possible readings of the ‘Omar Suleiman appointment as Vice President of Egypt, the first Mubarak has named. The obvious one is that he sought to reassure about the succession (and deep six the Gamal Mubarak idea), but in the present context that seems like the proverbial rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The more optimistic reading is that Mubarak named Suleiman to give himself time to get out the door; to arrange a smooth transition to someone the Army knows and trusts, but who in turn could preside over the transition to some sort of coalition government to prepare for new elections.

I said it was an optimistic reading. So far, Mubarak doesn't seem to get what's happening. Someone tweeted yesterday, citing Ben Ali's "I have understood you" speech, that Mubarak's speech was more, "I'm sorry, I didn't understand you? Could you say it again?"

Tomorrow may see the naming of the new Cabinet, which could give us a clue as to whether Mubarak might move towards a transition, or whether he still doesn't get it.

Quick Takes

A couple of quick thoughts, with more to come later:
  • ‘Omar Suleiman as Vice President (sorry, Gamal) and Ahmad Shafiq as Prime Minister would have been daring moves if made, say, on Monday. It finally offers a vision of potential successors who aren't named Mubarak.
  • But Suleiman's role as head of General Intelligence may make him too suspect after all that has happened. (Though General Intelligence has never been as intrusive in the life of the average citizen as the dreaded State Security.)His age and his health are also issues as far as succession goes.
  • Ahmad Shafiq is a respected former head of the Air Force (and more recently Civil Aviation Minister). But the Air Force is Mubarak's old service. Again, these moves made sooner might have forestalled the revolt. But made now, they may be too little, too late.
  • Crowds tried to storm the Interior Ministry in the Lazoghly neighborhood. Home base of State Security, "Lazoghly," as it's sometimes known, is the Bastille of this revolt.
I'll have more comments later.

Al Jazeera English Streaming Live

Al Jazeera English is Streaming Live and making the code available:

This, I think, is your Weekend Historical Video this weekend. Let's watch it in the rough.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Misr Umm al-Dunya

Perhaps the most reassuring story of a hectic day: when the burning NDP building fire threatened to spread to the nearby Egyptian Museum, and suspected looters were also reported in the area, the protesters themselves protected the museum with its irreplaceable riches, until the Army could secure it. Egyptians are proud of their heritage, just not their government. King Tut is secure for now; it's the more recent pharaoh who's in hot water.

Who Won the Battle of Cairo? Some Scenarios

Who won today's running confrontations? Clearly, the demonstrators believe they did. Clearly too, the police and Central Security Forces lost. The Army had to enter Cairo for the first time since 1986, and downtown for the first time since 1977. Exactly what the current dynamic is isn't clear, because no one knows if the Army will be used against the demonstrators. It apparently did little to protect the NDP headquarters, taking up positions at the Foreign Ministry and the Radio/TV building, both close by. Mubarak's decision to hang tough means we need to watch a bit more.

At this point I can think of several scenarios by which this could play out:

Scenario One: Confrontations Ease, but Continue. Saturday is a work day. People may be unwilling to confront the Army, as opposed to the hated police. Mubarak hangs tough, demonstrations persist. This has often been the Egyptian model in the past. But the simmering pot has boiled over, and it's going to be hard to take it off a boil.

Scenario Two: The Tunisian Model: The Confrontations Escalate, the Army Won't Fire on Demonstrators; Mubarak Goes. The Tunisian scenario, in other words. Should this happen, then the Middle East may be repeating Eastern Europe in 1989. Tunisia was Poland, but Egypt would be the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Scenario Three: The Tienanmen Model: The Confrontations Escalate; The Army and/or the Police Do a Tienanmen. Blood in the streets; an uncertain future. A poke in the eye for Obama. The opposition could radicalize.

Scenario Four: The Russian (1917 or 1991) Model: The Conscript Army Refuses to Shoot Their Contemporaries. A variant of number two. The rank and file of the Army, the regime's last line of defense, changes sides rather than shoot their brothers and sisters down.

Scenario Five: The Officer Corps Says No, It's Time for You to Go. Another variant of Number Two. The Egyptian bargain, established by Sadat and continued by Mubarak, gave the Army huge economic perks (including manufacturing of appliances, not just weapons, and control over certain imports) in exchange for staying out of politics while backing up the regime. As Mubarak seems less and less viable, the Army Officer Corps might calculate that the only way to maintain the system is to put the Captain over the side.

Scenario Six: Mubarak Recognizes Reality. This is the Only if You're on Drugs Model: Mubarak goes on TV, says, "Hey, I'm 83 and ailing and after 30 years you need a change. Nobody wants my boring son, so we'll just let you figure out what comes next." I wish.

Hanging Tough: Mubarak Holds On

So it was Mubarak rather than Fathi Sorour. He's hanging tough, brazening it out, talking about the rule of law and promising a better future. He's dismissed the government (the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers, mostly technocrats, though presumably including the hated Interior Minister), and will name a new one tomorrow.

I think the situation is so volatile that I fear this is not going to stop the demonstrators. Unless he names a really broad government. They've routed the police and felt the taste of victory. The Army's role is still ambiguous. At the very least he can't reappoint Habib al-Adly as Interior Minister, but even ditching him may not be enough.

There's so much of this dynamic we don't know. Where did the police disappear to? Did they just go home, or are they waiting in the wings for a final sweep if the Army doesn't do it? Where was Mubarak all day? For that matter, where is he now? Sharm al-Sheikh or Cairo?

I'll stay on this through the weekend, but with some family breaks.

A Sense of Something About to Happen

Fathi Sorour, the Speaker of the Egyptian People's Assembly, is reportedly about to make an address.

Fathi Sorour would be Acting President if the Presidency Became Vacant. Something is about to happen.

A Moment for Caution

Right now I'm trying, like everyone else, to figure out what's going on. Where is Mubarak? What is the Army doing? Who's in charge here? Where is Field Marshal Tantawi? (Some are claiming he's in Washington. [It was the Chief of Staff instead.]) There are wild rumors (the Israeli embassy has been evacuated, the Egyptian Museum is being looted) which suggest wild speculation. I've told several reporters who've called that I hesitate to shoot at a moving target. I know the 24/7 news game requires constant commentary, but I'm tired of CNN saying the demonstrators are "defying the curfew." Heck, the whole demonstration violates the Interior Ministry ban on gatherings. Also too much attention to where ElBaradei is. And I've long since given up on TV figuring out the difference between an APC and a tank, or between a police van and an APC. I'll give you a fuller take when more information is available. Meanwhile any brief thoughts will go directly to the MEI Twitter account, @MiddleEastInst.

What Will the Army Do?

I've been watching a live CNN feed from the corniche, where an Army APC (something in the Russian BRDM family I think) is being surrounded by demonstrators who seem to be cheering the Army. The traditional respect Egyptians accord the Army seems to be in evidence. But whereas the Central Security Forces were cracking down hard, the Army seems to be fraternizing. The Army high command is docile, but the Army has always been the ultimate guarantor of the regime, and if the senior officer corps ever feels that the only way to save the system is to change the leadership, they have the ability to do it.

Is the Army in Cairo?

UPDATED: Demonstrators said to be welcoming the Army.

CNN is showing what clearly are Army trucks on the Nile corniche. If the Army is brought into Cairo, that will be a game changer. Good continuing coverage here. I'll offer more when things clarify a bit.

The Night the Internet Died in Egypt

It's past midnight here but I'm still watching Egypt, where the day of the big demonstration has already dawned. Time to go to bed. But first:

Read this article and look at this graphic.
Times are GMT. Egypt is GMT +2. Egypt's Internet started to go dark just after midnight local time, and flatlined by 12:30. The night the Internet died in the cradle of civilization.

Details from the link:

Confirming what a few have reported this evening: in an action unprecedented in Internet history, the Egyptian government appears to have ordered service providers to shut down all international connections to the Internet. Critical European-Asian fiber-optic routes through Egypt appear to be unaffected for now. But every Egyptian provider, every business, bank, Internet cafe, website, school, embassy, and government office that relied on the big four Egyptian ISPs for their Internet connectivity is now cut off from the rest of the world. Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt, Etisalat Misr, and all their customers and partners are, for the moment, off the air.

At 22:34 UTC (00:34am local time), Renesys observed the virtually simultaneous withdrawal of all routes to Egyptian networks in the Internet's global routing table. Approximately 3,500 individual BGP routes were withdrawn, leaving no valid paths by which the rest of the world could continue to exchange Internet traffic with Egypt's service providers. Virtually all of Egypt's Internet addresses are now unreachable, worldwide.
Indeed, I can't raise any .eg sites, not even official ones like Al-Ahram. Also see here.

You can shut down the Internet for a while, but how do you conduct normal commerce? Ben Wedeman of CNN tweeted tonight (well, last night now) that he couldn't check into a hotel since Reservations couldn't access the Internet.

Iran shut it down pretty hard in 2009 to break the demonstrations and Egypt seems to be doing the same tonight. Though in Iran if I recall correctly you could still access government sites from abroad. But Egypt depends on tourism, international trade, the Suez Canal, international remissions, all things that need connectivity. How long can they keep it shut down before they go from acting like North Korea to having North Korea's economy? Not long I suspect.

It's a reminder that the Internet is not the universal democratizing engine some expect as long as governments still control where the plug goes into the wall, or where the ISPs talk to the world. But it also says you're desperate, if you unplug the world for the day. Friday is not a major day for business in Egypt, of course, but can you keep it down Saturday and beyond?

I'll have more tomorrow. Am up too late as it is. But look at that graph.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Note About MEI's Twitter Feed

It looks like a wild day tomorrow in Cairo. I wanted to remind everyone that while I don't tweet independently of this blog (too talkative to keep to 140 characters), every post to this blog has its headline posted to the Middle East Institute feed, @MiddleEastInst. Following can save you having to check this page. And of course there's the RSS Feed. I may be posting at odd times and through the weekend, and if you aren't already following the MEI tweets, you ought to be since they also let you now about upcoming events and all.

Other resources for tomorrow (I'll omit the Egyptian media as they may be blocked):

The British-based blog Enduring America has been doing a fabulous job of aggregating video, still pics, and liveblogging of events in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere.

On Facebook, for English sites, the We Are All Khaled Said site is very active, though there are many.

On Twitter, #Jan25, #Egypt, @Alshaheeed, @Dima-Khatib, @bencnn, @arabist, are good places to start. Many activists have lost access or may be detained.

Is Egypt Shutting Out the World Before Tomorrow?

UPDATE II: Several activists and two of the senior Brotherhood figures have been arrested in the small hours of the morning apparently. Tomorrow is going to be serious business, I fear.

If this story is true, it could be a bad augury for tomorrow. Why would security forces burn cars unless they're acting as provocateurs to justify a hard crackdown?

Egyptian bloggers and tweeters have been reporting major problems accessing the Internet altogether — not just Twitter and Facebook, which have reportedly been sporadically down for the last couple of days. Yesterday Suez was cut off — mobile service, landlines, SMS, even in some neighborhoods electrical power. If they shut down all Internet access, the outside world is going to have problems reporting tomorrow's demonstration. Many foreign media have already been arrested but later released.

It worked in Iran in 2009. Can it work in Egypt? It's generally even more connected, but we'll see. (Shades of when I first lived in Egypt in 1972, when the phone system was undependable and getting a phone line took years, as opposed to now, when everyone's mobile.)

Most Old Guard Leave Tunisian Cabinet

Earlier today Tunisian Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane announced his resignation, and subsequently the Interim Cabinet announced a reshuffle replacing 12 members from the Ben Ali era, including the Defense, Interior, and Finance Ministries. Prime Minister Ghannouchi, however, a pillar of the old regime, still keeps his job.

The demands to replace the RCD entirely had been building for days, and this was not unexpected. On the other hand, I hope Ghannouchi realized he has just focused all the anger on his own person.

Assessing Egypt After Day Three

Day three of the Cairo demonstrations seems to have been relatively quiet in Cairo, as people take a breather before the big protests tomorrow after Friday prayers. But more troubles in the Canal Cities, with Ismailia now as well as Suez.

With everyone wondering when the government would speak, the NDP Party boss Safwat al-Sharif, who's been around throughout the Sadat and Mubarak eras and possibly since the Pharaohs, gave a press conference and explained how important the NDP considers youth and how reforms will continue etc. Someone tweeted that the press conference appeared to be from an alternate universe.

Oh, and Mohamed ElBaradei, remember him?, returned to Cairo from Vienna. Yes, he's been out of the country while all this has been happening. He's saying he'll take part in the big demo tomorrow. I think Mr. ElBaradei may be trying to join a bandwagon that he's already missed.

I do think tomorrow will be an interesting test. Can the demonstrators keep the numbers coming, or will the arrests and beatings finally demoralize them, and show the regime's durability?

The NDP leadership were described by some of the reporters present as seeming nervous, even as they denied they were worried. But the Party hacks aren't what keeps the government in power; the harder men behind the scenes do.

While Tuesday was enormously impressive and yesterday in Suez looked like it was spinning out of control, the regime still has a lot of weapons in its arsenal (and I don't mean that metaphorically). And that's even without turning to the Army, as they did in 1977 and 1986. I can't foresee the future, and Tunisia surprised everyone, but the Egyptian nut will be harder to crack. This won't be over in 29 days. (Always with the proviso that the Army could be a wild card, but probably won't be.)

Who Says Chutzpah's Not Egyptian?

Update: Today's Al-Ahram headline was about demonstrations in Lebanon. Not enough local news, I guess.

I really should have stolen posted this sooner, a screen cap The Arabist posted yesterday and entitled "A New Standard for Desperate." I'd call it a new standard for some combination of chutzpah and toadying to the regime. It's from Al-Ahram's website.

Now, January 25 was chosen as the day for demonstrations because it is "Police Day," celebrating the date in 1952 when police in the Canal Zone were killed in a firefight with the British, in other words, when the police were fighting for Egyptian freedom. The headline reads "Chocolate and Roses for Police Day." The roses are on the left; the chap on the right is Interior Minister Habib al-Adly in a very old photograph (or after a visit to Mubarak's hair colorist). Adly heads the Interior Ministry and its famous State Security Investigations, Central Security Forces, and other chocolate-and-roses loving groups. He also serves as a reassurance that President Mubarak will never be called the most hated man in the country. His replacement is at the top of the demonstrators' list of demands.

The text starts out, "Citizens exchanged chocolate and roses with policemen in the provinces," and goes on to provoke gag reflexes with its description of the gratitude of the citizens for the police and their mutual exchange of felicitations. It looked to most viewers as if they were exchanging paving stones and tear gas canisters (or in Suez, live ammunition), not chocolate and roses.

The police were handing out roses at the airport, apparently. Well, that makes it all better.

The Arabist used a screen cap since he didn't have any confidence they'd be gutsy enough to leave this online. I haven't checked, but surely even the security guys would realize this just makes them laughingstocks.

"Security Fatigue" as a Tactic

Egyptian protesters on Twitter last night were urging each other to keep demonstrating all night so the Central Security Forces and other police would get no sleep, stretching them even thinner in anticipation of Friday's big "million person" march. As a psywar tactic, it's interesting, provided you have enough people to do it in shifts; otherwise you wear yourselves out too. It's one of a number of issues embraced by the term "security fatigue."

Especially for those of us older than some of the demonstrators, who remember that in February 1986, conscripts in the Egyptian Central Security Forces — the very folks you're seeing in the pictures — rioted and attacked hotels at the pyramids over reports their conscription period was to be extended. They had to bring in the Army to put down the police. If the young, underpaid CSF rank and file — who are part of the Egyptian people, too — are stretched thin and facing down their contemporaries to defend an octogenarian, results could be interesting. Or, of course, they could be so much on edge that they respond even more violently. But "security fatigue," a recognized issue in protracted conflicts, just might become an issue here.

All That Other Stuff

Issandr El Amrani complained a few days ago about how the "Inconsiderate Middle East" kept interfering with his visit to Tunis. He leaves Egypt for Tunis, and Egypt blows up. So does Lebanon. So does the Palestinian Authority. And hardly anyone remembers that Sudan is coming apart.

I'm just one blogger with a day job, and find that Egypt has kept me occupied since Tunisia wound down, and I've said little about the "Palestine Papers," though Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat has named a former colleague of mine, Al Jazeera's Clayton Swisher (a former Director of Programs at MEI), as one of the two main leakers he blames. I've also said nothing about Najib Mikati in Lebanon, though the Western media has taken an "Eek! Hizbullah's taking over!" approach to the story. (But you have Qifa Nabki to meet your Lebanon needs.) And I've said nothing about Sudan since my post about haberdashery a week ago. I have The Middle East Journal as well, of course, which pays the bills. I'll try to comment more on issues I've missed, over the next day or two. But Egypt will not be neglected, since it's the country I've known best and longest, and these are amazing times.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Noticeable Absence of the Brotherhood

One aspect of the Egyptian demonstrations clearly goes against the government's favored narrative: that the only alternative to the regime is the Muslim Brotherhood, and we don't want that, do we? This is the usual response to calls for lifting the State of Emergency, democratization (look what happened in Gaza!) etc.

Watch the videos now all over YouTube and Facebook. Do you see any beards? Well, maybe a few beard-and-mustache looks of some young hipsters, but not the beard-without-mustache "uniform" we associate with the Muslim Brothers. Where was the Brotherhood? (Where is Husni Mubarak, of course, is the other question.)

The Brotherhood's English and Arabic websites have been reporting the events closely, and the MB issued a cautious statement that its membership could participate as long as they were peaceful and obeyed the law. But this is clearly a movement of young, secular, middle class Egyptians, or those who would be middle class if they could find jobs.

The Brotherhood may have calculated that their presence would hurt the protests (the absence of Islamists from the Tunisian revolution has been remarked upon), or they may just figure they'll be rounded up anyway and they might as well not make it worse. But it does go against the narrative, encouraged by the regime and by some others, that the only alternative to autocracy is political Islam. And when the regime tried to blame the MB anyway, they made themselves look ridiculous.

One of the spurs to the present demonstrations, along with Tunisia, is the New Year's bombing of the Coptic church in Alexandria, which has led to much popular feeling about the dangers of religious polarization. That may be another reason for the Brotherhood sitting this one out.

Aflame in Suez

More on the very serious day in Suez. According to some at least, this is the police headquarters on fire. (Clarification: a police station in the Arba‘in neighborhood of Suez.)

To add to the cognitive dissonance, I'm watching a heavy snowfall outside (the schools were closed today but the snow only arrived in late afternoon) while watching Suez burn online.

Some have noted that the Central Security Forces uniforms outside the capital look a lot like the Army's uniforms, which could explain those earlier reports about the Army in Suez. But one of Egypt's two field armies is headquartered close by, so it still bears watching.

The Graphics of a Movement

Some of the images being used to rally the demonstrators in Egypt. Note the plays on the Tunisian and Egyptian flags.
Add Image

And they're now hoping to bring out a million people after Friday prayers:

What Happened in Suez?

UPDATE: A photo from Suez, via Facebook:

UPDATE II: Unconfirmed claims that the Army has replaced the police in Suez.
This may not be true; the Army is rarely used internally. The 1977 food riots, the immediate days after the Sadat assassination, the police riots in 1986. And in some Upper Egypt tourist areas after the Luxor massacre. If the Army is actually used, even just in Suez, the regime is scared, and/or the police are losing. But the Army deployment is unconfirmed.

While all the cameras were focused on Cairo, I wondered why the fatalities yesterday were reported from Suez. Now there are reports of continuing serious clashes in Suez, of live ammunition being used,of more dead and perhaps hundreds injured. Separating rumor from truth is difficult, but there are reports that a government building and an NDP Party headquarters have been burned.

The canal cities haven't usually been centers of dissidence. It will be interesting to see why Suez seems to have exploded more violently than other cities.

Now What Happens?

After Police Day in Cairo, and now after the day after, what next? Obviously Egypt drew a lot of attention as many of the same media correspondents who were in Tunis a week ago shifted to Cairo. But it's also clear that the government showed its harder side today, with the Interior Ministry banning all gatherings and breaking up assemblages. Yesterday was a holiday, today a work day, so turnouts were reduced. The next test will be Friday, since after Friday prayers is a traditional tie for ferment, since crowds are already assembled at mosques.

Marc Lynch today captures some of the nuances we're all wrestling with as we watch this evolve: long experience teaches us not to underestimate the durability of Arab autocrats, even as we recognize that something does seem to have changed: there's a new dynamic in play, and neither policy analysts nor, perhaps, Interior Ministries fully understand what it means, or how exportable it may be. Read Lynch's piece since I think I would echo most of it. Including the sense that something has changed, but also skepticism that it will be enough to replicate Tunisia. Egypt is much bigger, more critically important to the US, and also has more outlets for letting off steam (an independent if sometimes restricted press). But yesterday's demonstrations were by most accounts the biggest since the 1977 bread riots, at least, and the bread riots scared Anwar Sadat no end,

One element in Tunisia that is less likely to be replicated in Egypt is the role the Army played. The Egyptian Army stays out of politics largely because of the perks granted by the regime, but they are also the ultimate guarantors of the regime. They normally play no role in internal security, which is the domain of the Interior Miuistry. But it is hard to imagine the Egyptian Army, at least as currently officered, giving the final shove to a faltering regime, as apparently occurred in Tunisia, though the details are still obscure.

On the other hand, the real loser in all this may be "Jimmy." Gamal Mubarak has always been a tough sell, since he is about as charismatic as most professional bankers, and evokes little support outside of his own entrepreneurial class of newly enriched businessmen. The Army has been noticeably silent about the succession project. At times in the past, the elder Mubarak has talked about the necessity of military experience for a leader in Egypt. A threat to the regime from the streets could lead him to abandon the Gamal project and simply run for a sixth term, which many have always suspected he would do, After all, he'd only be 90 when the term expires.

But of course, the dynamic may hold some surprises. Nobody thought Ben Ali would go after 29 days of anger, until he did.

Day Two in Cairo

So far it sounds as if today's demonstrations in Egypt are occurring but not gaining yesterday's traction. Police are showing less restraint. Lots of detainees, and reports of many injured in Suez yesterday, where at least two of the fatalities occurred.

More as it's available.

The Curious Incident of the Wafd in the Daytime

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
"The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "Silver Blaze"

Egypt's Wafd Party, which has been acting lately rather like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the ruling party despite its 90 years of history as a bastion of nationalism, has seemingly done something daring. That is the curious incident.

It has, seemingly, called publicly for a national unity government, dissolution of Parliament, and a proportional representation system. Not so long ago the current Wafdist head, Sayyid Badawi, bought the vigorous opposition newspaper
Al-Dostour long enough to fire its editor just before the elections, leading everyone to see him as in the government's pocket. So why is he seemingly throwing down the gauntlet?

But is he?
The Arabist, who's for good or ill in Tunisia right now but still watches Egypt, has his doubts:
My gut reaction: this is either a significant break with the Wafd's behavior for over 30 years, or he is making this announcement on behalf of the regime. Why the conspiracy theory? Because he doesn't mention the question of the presidency, a chief demand of the protestors. Perhaps he should be given the benefit of the doubt.
Exactly. Nothing about the Presidency. Talk about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. He's talking about new Parliamentary elections, a change in the electoral system, etc.: unless Parliament is given real power, reforming Parliament is like reforming the Pompeii City Council when Vesuvius is erupting. A start, maybe. But perhaps a diversion. Here's the Arabic.

So is the Wafd just a stalking horse for the ruling party, or is this actually a real proposal that deserves some credit since mentioning the Presidency would cross a red line the Wafd won't cross?

Back when I ran videos of Sa‘d Zagloul, the Wafd founder/icon, I noted that according to traditions, at least,
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."
I hope Sa‘d Pasha would not be disappointed in whatever Badawi is doing, and I hope he's not a stalking horse for the regime.

But stuff's happening, so let's watch.

How Facebook Fought Back Against Tunisia

An interesting tech piece at The Atlantic on how Facebook sought to defend its members against a massive, state-level attempt by Tunisia to steal all the passwords.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Best Line of the Day

Even when they're angry, Egyptians still have a sense of humor. Somewhere on the Internet today (I hope that narrows it down) I noticed that one of the chants being chanted was Mubarak, Mubarak, al-Saudiyya intizarak. "Mubarak, Mubarak, Saudi Arabia is waiting for you."

Ben Ali and family, of course, fled to Saudi Arabia.

The Day of Protest

Major protests took place today in Tunisia (continuing to demand the interim government step down) and in Lebanon (against Najib Mikati replacing Sa‘d Hariri), but right now I want to comment on Egypt.

Based on video reports, Facebook, Twitter, etc. the demonstrators seem to have succeeded in makiNG their presence felt, and have occupied Tahrir Square (the central one downtown, shown above at dusk today) and are planning an all-night sit-in. Big turnouts were reported from Alexandria as well.

Extensive presence of Central Security Forces means the government was able to control and channel the demonstrations to some extent, but they don't seem to have deterred them as has often happened in the past. Perhaps Tunisia really has given people a new determination. By all reports the demonstrators were peaceful and didn't loot or attack private vehicles. The police were not as gentle. This does seem to have been one of the most successful and impressive turnouts for a demonstration; too often in the past groups mustered tens of thousands of supporters on Facebook, but only a few dozen would show up in the street. This seems different.

The real question is whether everything returns to normal tomorrow. The difference in Tunisia was the crowds kept growing and people got angrier and angrier. But the Egyptian government has always allowed an opposition press as an outlet for releasing pressure; Tunisia was far more absolutist in its control. So I'd be surprised to see a replication of the Tunisian results in Egypt. Of course, I was surprised to see them in Tunis, too.

Egypt Said to Block Twitter

The Police Day demonstrations in Cairo and Alexandria seem to have large turnouts despite a heavy security presence. In the past hour or so Twitter has reportedly been blocked in Egypt. What's getting through is tagged #Jan25. More later.

Extended Rant: My Take on the Kaplan Debate About Tunisia

I only rant occasionally, so indulge me a bit.

Last week
and this I've been pointing to several cogent, wise, and thoughtful assessments of the Tunisian events, so I guess it's only fair I should point to one that falls on the other side of the divide: Robert Kaplan's weekend piece in The New York Times. Kaplan has written some good books, though his Middle East track record is not all I might wish for. This time, I think he gets it wrong.

Now several others have already expressed their disagreement: notably Brian Whitaker and kal at The Moor Next Door. Read their comments as well as I'm not going to repeat their points overmuch. But bear in mind my doctorate is in history, and I did a bit of work on the early Islamic Maghreb, not to mention having a reasonable knowledge of Classical Antiquity. In other words, don't start arguing about Carthage and Roman Africa unless you want a fight. Or a rant.

First let me quote this line:
Because urbanization in Tunisia started two millenniums ago, tribal identity based on nomadism — which, as the medieval historian Ibn Khaldun says, has always disrupted political stability — is correspondingly weak.
Yes indeed. And Ibn Khaldun is the greatest of Arab historians, arguably a founder of sociology, a brilliant polymath whose insights are always worth reading, and who was born in (are your ready?) in Tunis. No special pleading there. But, actually, he also gets Ibn Khaldun dead wrong. He distinguished between hadara and the ‘asabiyya, the group cohesion that binds tribes but is not present in settle societies. The quote turns Ibn Khaldun, perhaps Tunis' greatest son (his statue sits at the gateway of the Tunis medina) on his head.

And that is only the beginning.

Kaplan's real point seems to be that Arab autocracies may not be so bad for US interests and, um, Israel. He concludes:
Another thing to keep in mind: in terms of American interests and regional peace, there is plenty of peril in democracy. It was not democrats, but Arab autocrats, Anwar Sadat of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan, who made peace with Israel. An autocrat firmly in charge can make concessions more easily than can a weak, elected leader — just witness the fragility of Mahmoud Abbas’s West Bank government. And it was democracy that brought the extremists of Hamas to power in Gaza. In fact, do we really want a relatively enlightened leader like King Abdullah in Jordan undermined by widespread street demonstrations? We should be careful what we wish for in the Middle East.
Well, I think that's clear enough. Should the Tunisians also be careful what they wish for?

The Moor has done the most critical critique (I guess that's redundant) so far. I have a few points to add, but do read him as well.

Let's start:
Start with a map of classical antiquity, which shows a concentration of settlements where Tunisia is today, juxtaposed with the relative emptiness that characterizes modern-day Algeria and Libya. Jutting out into the Mediterranean close to Sicily, Tunisia has been the hub of North Africa not only under the Carthaginians and Romans, but under the Vandals, Byzantines, medieval Arabs and Turks. Whereas Algeria and Libya were but vague geographical expressions until the coming of European colonial map makers, Tunisia is an age-old cluster of civilization.
Algeria and Libya weren't "vague geographical expressions" since in classical antiquity Libya pretty much meant the whole African continent, and "Algeria" is a French invention from Algiers. The "map of classical antiquity" however, would show first a string of Carthaginian colonies, and later and inland, Numidia, the land of Massinissa and Jugurtha, where Algeria is today, and the magnificent Roman ruins at Leptis Magna in Libya suggest it was not "relative emptiness." Read your Sallust.

On the other hand, let's not give the Romans too much credit: Delenda est Cartago. The major urban center of Tunisia was not just destroyed by Rome, but the ground was salted to make it uninhabitable.

Yes, Tunisia was a major urban center of early, Late Roman, Christianity. Augustine, who made a bit of a name for himself, preached at (the reborn Roman version of) Carthage among other places, but he was born in Thagaste (Suq Ahras) in what was then Numidia and is now Algeria, and is best known as the Bishop of Hippo (Annaba, Algeria). In Christian terms, Augustine is, well, kind of major.

None of this is intended to deny the centrality of what is now Tunisia. But Kaplan, save for one throwaway line about its importance under "Medieval Arabs," says little about Tunisia's role in early Islam. In about 670 AD the Arab conquerors, reaching what had been Proconsular Africa under the Romans, decided, as they had in Egypt (Alexandria to Fustat/Cairo) to move the capital inland from the coast, and founded the city of Kairouan ("the camp," but from the same word that gives us "caravan"). The Great Mosque in Kairouan is still one of the two great spiritual centers of Tunisia, along with the Mosque/University of Zeitouna in Tunis, once the greatest Islamic center of education west of al-Azhar.

In the old Moroccan imperial city of Fez, one of the best preserved medieval Arab capital medinas, there are two sides of the city, across a river, They take their names from the two great mosques: the Andalusiyyin (the Andalusians, the Spaniards) and the Qarawaniyyin (the Mosque of the People of Kairouan). It is a reminder of the dominance Kairouan once had in the Islamic Maghreb.

There is no mention of the Aghlabids, who from Tunisia conquered most of North Africa and Sicily, or of the Fatimids, who not only conquered Egypt but also Syria and even held Baghdad for a while. Zeitouna became the great educational center of the Arab West.
Then there's this:Tunisia has a relatively large middle class because of something so obvious it goes unremarked upon: it is a real state, with historical and geographical legitimacy, where political arguments are about budgets and food subsidies, not the extremist ideologies that have plagued its neighbors, Algeria and Libya. It is a state not only because of the legacy of Rome and other empires, but because of human agency, in the person of Habib Bourguiba, one of the lesser-known great men of the 20th century.
Tunisia is "s real state, with historical and geographical legitimacy." I can understand the contrast drawn with Libya and Algeria. But isn't Morocco a "real state?" And surely no one is going to doubt Egypt's pedigree. This is the kind of stereotype I hate.

I could go on. There's no great point, except to note that even Kaplan's modern narrative has some issues:
In 1987, while faced by an Islamic rising, Bourguiba became too infirm to rule, and was replaced by his former interior minister, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, essentially a security boss with little vision, much like the Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Ben Ali’s strategy was to keep order, which largely meant killing and torturing Islamists and other dissidents.
There was an "Islamic rising" in 1987? I missed it completely. There was some ferment to be sure, caused in part by the fact that Bourguiba was failing rapidly, but I missed the rising. And what about that "keep order = killing and torturing Islamists and other dissidents" equation, which is dropped in as it it were obvious?

I may add more when I have more time.

Police Day and Protest in Egypt

Today is Egyptian Police Day, anniversary of a great nationalist moment in 1952 when the police attacked the British, but today too often a moment to glorify centralized authority. Here's my post from last year, but this year this is going to be a day of rage Tunisian style, if the protesters have their way. Let's see what happens.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Panel of Wise Men to Replace Transitional Government?

There are reports that talks are under way in Tunisia to replace the transitional government with a panel of "wise men" to oversee a transition to democracy, in response to continuing protests against the presence of figures in the former government in the transitional Cabinet. In addition, General Rachid Ammar, the eminence grise of the revolution, publicly was quoted as warning that a "power vacuum" could lead to dictatorship.

One interesting point in these reports is the mention that one of the "wise men" being considered is Ahmed Mestiri, the veteran opposition figure who broke with Bourguiba in the 1950s, founded the Movement of Socialist Democrats (MDS), and spent much time in jail and house arrest. Mestiri is 85 years old, stepped down as head of the MDS in 1989, and is retired from politics, but he is still a potent symbol of a longtime opponent of the government.

The "Palestine Papers"

I'm certainly going to have more to say on the major story that broke this weekend, what Al Jazeera English is calling "The Palestine Papers," confidential documents relating to negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel (and the US) over the years, including apparent evidence the PA was willing to make far greater concessions than has been publicly acknowledged. These includes revelations about Jerusalem, the Haram al-Sharif, proposed Israeli land swaps, and so on. Al Jazeera's "Transparency Unit" has search engines in English and Arabic for searching those papers published so far. Key PA figures — Mahmoud ‘Abbas, Saeb ‘Erekat, Yasir ‘Abd Rabbo — are denying offering far-reaching concessions and charging that Al Jazeera has "distorted" the facts, and I suspect the key is going to be finding out not just what's in the headlines but what the documents actually say.

What's clear for now is that there is already considerable criticism of the PA within the Palestinian territories and abroad, and that whoever leaked these documents sought to embarrass ‘Abbas and the PA leadership generally.

I'll have more to say when I've read more, but I suspect the documents may reflect feelers, trial balloons, and other exploratory discussions in the course of negotiations. But the effect may be a bombshell in internal Palestinian politics.

Taking Stock Ten Days Later

Ten days after the January 14 flight of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the analyses are continuing. Like several I've already linked to, the newer assessments are more thoughtful and nuanced than some of those produced in the first flush of victory. Steven Heydemann has a useful piece today at Foreign Policy's Middle East channel, which is worth your time.

And among the analysts and reporters flocking to Tunisia we find Issandr El Amrani, The Arabist, who's going to be contributing periodic analyses from the country. The first post has some interesting points, and I look forward to his forthcoming series.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Stay Back! I Have a Baguette and I'm Not Afraid to Use It!

This may deserve to be the iconic photo of the Tunisian revolt, perhaps to rank with the one man standing up to the line of tanks in Beijing during Tienanmen 1989:

(Click the pic to make it bigger.) The Boston Globe's The Big Picture Blog published a lot of the best photos from Tunisia. This is the one everybody's reproducing, but I just couldn't resist the headline above. Watch out: That thing might go off.

If bread is illegal, only outlaws will have bread. Let them eat cake, indeed.

Friday, January 21, 2011

This Weekend's Video: Sidi Bouzid

Instead of the usual Weekend Historical Video, given the fact that we're witnessing quite a bit of history at the moment, I thought I'd leave you with this Al Jazeera English report on Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the Tunisian revolt.

Rachid Ghannouchi and Al-Nahda: Will They Return?

Yesterday the interim Tunisian government indicated that it would legalize all banned political parties. Some reports certainly indicated that this would include the Al-Nahda (Renaissance) Party, the main Islamist party, suppressed after 1989. Meanwhile, Al-Nahda's leader in exile, Rachid Ghannouchi (unrelated to Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi), living in exile in London, gave an interview to the Financial Times last Sunday indicating he intends to return to Tunisia soon, despite the fact that he is under a sentence (in absentia) of life imprisonment. (On the other hand, along with legalizing banned parties, the new government said it would free all political prisoners.)

As many have noted, despite Western stereotypical assumptions about the Arab/Islamic world, political Islamism played no detectable role in the Tunisian upheaval; nor would one expect it to in such a determinedly secular society, where Habib Bourguiba used to publicly eat during Ramadan. But Tunisia did have an Islamist movement, Al-Nahda, which showed some electoral strength during the brief liberalizing period after the fall of Bourguiba (when Ghannouchi actually met at least once with Ben Ali), and was subsequently (and ruthlessly) crushed. Ghannouchi left the country in 1989, and was later tried and sentenced to life in absentia.

So will Al-Nahda and its leader re-emerge onto the Tunisian political scene after two decades of suppression? As it happens, back in the early 1990s I published a few articles and a monograph on Al-Nahda, and was accused by the Islamists of being a flack for Ben Ali and by the Tunisian government of being too soft on Al-Nahda, because I wasn't a particular enthusiast for either. What happens next will be of interest. Tunisia's secular history and prominent role for women's rights makes it seem an improbable breeding ground for Islamism in the traditional form, but Al-Nahda has always marched to its own drummer, and Ghannouchi is these days comparing his party to Turkey's AKP, a democratic party in a highly secularized state. Although I've met members of Al-Nahda, I've never met Ghannouchi.

Ghannouchi's track record is controversial; some members of Al-Nahda did engage in political violence in the early 1990s, but the government crackdown on them went far beyond the few provocative acts some committed. And Ghannouchi has always claimed to be a disciple of non-violence. He is not himself a trained cleric (though neither were such Muslim Brotherhood thinkers as Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, who, like Ghannouchi, started as schoolteachers), and pursued a secular educational track, studied in Syria (a philosophy degree from Damascus University), flirted with Baathist-style socialism, and still insists he is an advocate for labor unions, worker's rights, and women's rights. In a country where the elites come from Tunis or from the Sahel (Bourguiba and Ben Ali), he comes from the deeper south, from the Gabes region. His Syrian period is particularly atypical of Islamists: he reportedly worked for a while as a correspondent for Radio Tirana in then-ultra-Stalinist Albania, studied European philosophers, and flirted with the Baath. He is, in other words, complicated.

In his British exile he has maintained this reputation as a rather progressive Islamist. He has been demonized for decades in many Western countries, in part due to accusations against him by the Ben Ali government. He has been in exile for over 20 years and will turn 70 in June of this year. He says he has no personal political ambitions.

Does Al-Nahda have a residual following in Tunisia, or is Ghannouchi a relic of a different era? I don't know. Probably few Tunisians do. If the new government means what it says about legalizing all parties, we may have a chance to find out.

Sonia Peres, 1923-2011

Sonia Peres, wife of Israeli President Shimon Peres, died yesterday at the age of 87. She had been married to Peres, also 87, for 67 years. Born in Ukraine, she immigrated at the age of four.

The Ha'aretz obit includes a slideshow of her life, in which she generally stayed out of the limelight.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Le Monde Charts the Ben Ali/Trabelsi Clans

Le Monde has an infograph style chart showing the members of the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans, with symbols showing their business interests.

Salva Kiir's Black Stetson

The man who is about to become, by all estimates, the President of Africa's newest nation, dismantling an Arab state in the process, rarely appears in public without his trademark black cowboy hat. Salva Kiir Mawardit, the President of Southern Sudan and First Vice President of Sudan, whose region recently held its week-long referendum on secession and which, by unofficial reports to date, may have voted by 90% or more to leave Sudan, wears the hat indoors as well as out, even when meeting the UN Secretary-General, above left. In my post last month on the Khartoum Summit I identified him in the picture as "the one in the cool hat," but didn't explain. As we approach the actual secession, it may be time.

Now, not everybody can pull off the cowboy hat image. Ronald Reagan made it work (right), but he'd played cowboys in the movies, and for Lyndon Johnson it came naturally. Calvin Coolidge (left), on the other hand, left something to be desired, though it's not as embarrassing as the rather famous one of him in a full Sioux headdress. Part of it is the 1920s suit: rather like when Richard Nixon showed up on the beach in a suit, tie, and leather shoes, it just doesn't quite work. Either go all the way, or don't try. (I can't pull off a Stetson myself: too short and fat. I can do justice to a kufiyyeh, a baseball cap, and certain other hats, but not the Stetson.)

Salva Kiir, on the other hand, makes it work, even with a business suit. I think it helps he's a Dinka, and they tend to be tall. I once saw the late Manute Bol ("the Dinka dunker") in a restaurant when he was playing for the Washington Bullets (now Wizards), and he was the tallest human I've ever seen at over seven feet. Height helps pull off a Stetson,though I don't think Salva Kiir has that kind of height. (Reagan and LBJ of course were both tall as well. I have no clue about Coolidge.)

By most accounts, the black stetson, or at least his first one, was a gift of President George W. Bush at a meeting with Sudanese leaders back in 2006. Some say the last official hatless portrait may be this one (left) from that 2006 meeting. In any event, by the time he met with Bush next, in 2007, he was wearing the black stetson even inside the Oval Office, as the next picture shows. He obviously likes the hat, which has become his trademark.

Now, Salva Kiir faced a major problem when he took over the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in the wake of the death of SPLM leader John Garang in a helicopter crash in 2005. Garang had a rather curious resume for a liberation movement leader (BA from Grinnell College in Iowa, Ph.D. in agricultural economics from Iowa State, did some military training at Fort Benning), but also had enormous charisma; southern Sudanese always referred to him as "Doctor John." When Garang died, there were divisi0ns in the SPLM which Khartoum was delighted to encourage. Salva Kiir lacked the charisma of his predecessor. I suspect that the hat is part of his attempt to give himself a clear image.

Oh, and despite the George W. Bush connection, and some neocons' efforts (especially on the Christian right) to claim credit for secession, Kiir has other hats, not all of them from Republicans. Here's Senator John Kerry offering him a Stetson (surely not from Massachusetts?).

Qatar's Replacement of its Energy Minister

When you're a major oil producer and a natural gas superpower, as Qatar pretty much is, replacing your Energy Minister is news, especially in the Gulf where ministers tend to serve forever. I've been busy with Tunisia, of course, a country I know rather well, while I don't know Qatar except from a distance (unless one stopover at Doha airport counts). So let me refer you to The Gulf Blog for an analysis.

Dunne on Tunisia

I'll let you start the day with some Dunne commentary instead of Dunn commentary: Michele Dunne of Arab Reform Bulletin has a fine, concise, well-stated look at "What Tunisia Proved — And Disproved — About Political Change in the Arab World."

Anything I could add would be redundant, so just click over and read it. It's also good that her piece appears as a column in Al-Masry al-Youm's English edition, which means at least some Egyptians will be reading it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Arabic Diglossia in the Tunisian Revolution

We noted last week that Ben Ali's last broadcast speech used colloquial Tunisian Arabic, instead of the formal Arabic that he traditionally used in public addresses. We've also talked frequently here about Arabic diglossia, the division between formal Arabic, the written tongue, and the spoken "dialects" in daily use. Lameen Souag, an Algerian-born linguist at SOAS whose Jabal al-Lughat (Mountain of Languages) blog I've linked to before, has a post on "Language Use in Tunisian Politics," which will interest readers who, like me, find this fascinating. (Yes, both of you.)

For the newcomers, fusha in the link refers to the formal, classical language, darja is the North African term for the local dialects. (Other words are used farther east.)

An Historical Aside: The Tunisian Monarchy

Given the fact that half of all Tunisians are under 25 and that the Tunisian monarchy was abolished in 1957, I think it's quite safe to predict that whatever the future holds for the country, one thing we will not see is a groundswell of interest in restoring the old Beylical/Royal House, the Husseinids. Probably few Tunisians even think about the fact that they once had a monarchy. (Apparently there is a claimant somewhere, but so obscure even the Internet doesn't offer all that much information.) But you already know I throw in historical trivia from time to time.

The fellow above left is Muhammad VIII al-Amin, Bey of Tunis, 1943-1956, and first and last King of Tunisia, 1956-57. He had been installed in 1943 when the Free French ousted his cousin, who was considered pro-Vichy.

He did not much outlast French rule. When Tunisian independence was declared in 1956, he became King. The Prime Minister, Habib Bourguiba, had an ego too large to share power with even a figurehead monarch, and in 1957 he deposed the King and declared a republic. Bourguiba became President, and eventually President-for-Life, with a lot more power than the King had had. The ex-King died in Tunis in 1962.

The Husseinids had held the Beylicate of Tunis since 1705.

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain: Gen Rachid Ammar

By most accounts, a key figure in the transitional government in Tunis has not appeared in public, made any statements, or held any press conferences. This would be General Rachid Ammar, head of the Tunisian Army. It is hard to find a picture of the man: the ones at left are the best I could find. He's about 63 or 64, born at Sayada in the Tunisian Sahel, the central coastal plain which was the origin of both Habib Bourguiba (Monastir) and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali (Hammam Sousse). Since his predecessor and much of the General Staff died in a helicopter accident in 2002, he has been Chief of Staff of the Tunisian Army.

The Army is traditionally apolitical, The land forces number only about 27,000, and though Ben Ali himself came originally from the Army, it has long been marginalized in favor of the security services, which may have numbered as many as 120,000, or even far more.

The exact sequence of events late last week remains obscure, but various media have reported that when General Ammar refused to fire on the demonstrators, he was sacked by Ben Ali. A day or so after that, Ben Ali was himself out of a job, and the role of the Army remains obscure but widely speculated upon. Almost certainly the Army issued some sort of ultimatum. There have been allegations elsewhere in the Arab world that the United States urged Ammar to move against Ben Ali, but there is no particular reason to credit that over any of the other rumors that have circulated. In any event, by most accounts, General Ammar is back in control of the Army, and the Army is said to have stepped in to separate the police from demonstrators, and to arrest some police chiefs. Reports of fraternization between troops and demonstrators have appeared, and some pictures and videos.

General Ammar, like most Tunisian military men, has remained unheralded and obscure. His French Wikipedia entry is fuller than his English one, and this article, also in French, also offers some information.

Is he the power behind the interim government, or simply its protector? Nobody knows; he remains the man behind the curtain.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Decline and Decline of the Israeli Labor Party

Time to talk about something other than Tunisia. Since Ehud Barak's announcement on Monday that he was resigning the leadership of Israel's Labor Party in order to form a new party, called Atzmaut (Indpendence), and the realignments that have followed, what is left of Israel's Labor Party now holds only eight seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

There was a time when Labor and (before it was created in its present form in 1968) its largest direct ancestor, Mapai, could count on winning as many as 45 to 47 seats in the 120 seat Knesset. (No single party has ever won enough seats to govern without forming a coalition.) In the 1950s, 1960s, and a good part of the 1970s, Mapai and later Labor were consistently at the core of government. All that began to change with the Likud victory in the 1977 elections.

Still, Labor alternated power with Likud throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and in the 1990s became the champion of the Oslo Peace Process. As popular opinion turned against Oslo, it also deserted Labor. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 marked a turning point, leaving Shimon Peres as the last of the founding generation still in Labor (though he had often been outside the mainstream as an ally of Ben Gurion in Rafi in the 1950s and 1960s). The formation of the centrist Kadima Party by Ariel Sharon and others (eventually including Peres) drained the party of more loyalists in the past decade. Throughout the 2000s, such leaders as Amram Mitzna, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Amir Peretz were barely familiar faces outside Israel, as the party's influence shrank. Even so, in the 2006 elections Labor won 19 seats, running second to Kadima, with Likud relegated to third place. Barak returned to the leadership in 2007, after Amir Peretz' performance during the Lebanon War of 2006 came in for criticism.

In 2009, however, Labor won only 13 seats, reducing the once dominant party to fourth place in the Knesset, behind Kadima, Likud, and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu. Barak's decision to join Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud in what is otherwise Israel's most right-wing coalition in its history has split the party, with four MKs threatening to leave, but now, Barak and four allies have bolted, and the four who were planning to leave (Amir Peretz, Eitan Cabel, Raleb Majadele and Daniel Ben-Simon) find themselves half of the Labor Party caucus. Ha'aretz has dubbed them the "Final Four," though they are really part of the final eight.

That leaves only eight Labor MKs. Barak and his allies in Atzmaut, will get four portfolios in Netanyahu's Cabinet, while three Labor ministers who did not join Barak have quit the government, so Labor is no longer part of the coalition.

Barak's move has drawn a great deal of criticism; it also further marginalizes a once dominant party, now seemingly a shadow of its former self, and further fragments what remains of the Israeli left. It also makes the current coalition even more firmly rightist than before, with Kadima now firmly identified as the main opposition bloc.

The party of David Ben-Gurion (sometimes), of Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin disappeared some time back. Now Labor isn't even the party of Ehud Barak, who may be remembered only as the last Labor Prime Minister. Ever.