A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Useful Read on Syria

When Josh Landis (Syria Comment) says of anything, "This is the best piece of writing on Syria since the uprising began. Read it," attention must be paid. Do read it. Also note his regular contributor Alex's corrections to the maps. Called "Syria in Fragments: Divided Minds, Divided Lives," the main article addresses the sectarian, ethnic, and secular vs. Islamist issues in turn.

But one cavil about Alex's corrections: he says Christians are found almost everywhere in Syria "but not in Deir Ezzore as shown." I had a good friend, a longtime Arabic translator for the US State Department many years ago. He was an Assyrian Christian from Deir Ezzore (or Deir al-Zor as I would write it). So there are at least some.

Egypt Restores Information Minister Job, and He's a General

UPDATE: Some are denying or questioning the report I linked to. It may be a false alarm, or a trial balloon that didn't take off. Let's see what happens.

UPDATE II: It sounds as if at best this may be a rumor or a trial balloon. (Link is in Arabic.) Or, once again, there are factional maneuvers behind the scenes. I'll leave my original comments intact in the event it proves to be real, but I'd approach the story with caution.
 In  the wake of the Revolution, Egypt announced it was abolishing the Ministry of Information in order not to regulate the media. Well, now it's reported that they've named a new Minister of Information, and he's a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces: Maj. Gen. Tareq al-Mahdi.  (Link is in Arabic.)

This, along with recent Military Council questioning of journalists and others critical of the Army, has led to considerable concern about the Army's intentions, to say the least. As I've noted before, the Council issues very mixed signals, when it says anything at all. Last Friday's demonstration included much open criticism of the Army. But a military man in charge of Information (a Ministry supposedly "abolished")? There doesn't seem to be much ambiguity in that message, I'm afraid.

The Rafah Crossing and Egyptian-Israeli Relations

Egypt's decision to reopen the Rafah crossing between Sinai and Gaza has been sharply criticized in Israel, which fears increased arms smuggling, but welcomed throughout the Arab world and most of Europe, as well as quite popular home. What many Egyptians saw as Egyptian state complicity in the blockade of Gaza and its resultant humanitarian consequences is now lifted.

Egypt has indicated that it will abide by its peace treaty with Israel, and despite some sensationalist speculation to the contrary, there isn't real much prospect of its not doing so. But the tone of the relationszhip is clearly cooler, with Egypt more willing to deal with Hamas and criticize Israel. Israel's favorite Egyprtian interlocutor, ‘Omar Suleiman, (who was also a determined foe of Hamas) is no longer in the picture.  Gaza and Egypt have historic ties (Egypt occupied it 1948-67, and there are many historic links with Sinai) and the siege has been terribly unpopular. The peace treaty envisioned open borders, not closed ones.

At the same time, Israel has legitimate concerns about continuing rocket attacks from Gaza and the dangers of an open Egyptian border; overall Israeli discomfort with the changes in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world will be heightened by the opening of Rafah. Generally, though, an improvement of the conditions of life in Gaza could eventually strengthen peace prospects by weakening Hamas' grip.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Holiday Note

I may or may not post over the weekend but I wanted to note for overseas readers that this is the begining of the three-day Memorial Day holiday in the US, extending through Monday; I'll see you Tuesday unless I hear the Muse between now and then.

May 27 in Tahrir

The big demonstrations in Tahrir today seem to have been large enough to show the revolutionary fervor of the young people is not dead, and to show that others beside the Muslim Brotherhood can mobilize action, though others are suggesting the turnout was not as big as hoped. Most of the Twitter traffic is positive, though. I'll comment more later.

A Historical and Architectural Aside: Sir K.A.C. Creswell

Anyone studying Islamic art or the history of Islamic architecture will have heard of K.A.C. Creswell, one of the founders of the field and a pioneer of the Western study of the Islamic architecture of Egypt. That would be Sir Keppel Archibald Cameron Creswell, With that name and title I probably don't need to note that he was British (though he was apparently "Archie" to his friends). But Creswell was not your average Oxford don. He had only a technical education in draftsmanship, and a profound interest in architecture. World War I saw him posted to Egypt with the Royal Flying Corps. As a Captain in the Flying Corps he somehow got himself named Inspector of Monuments in Palestine and Syria. And he was off and running. Born in 1879, he was already 40 when he convinced King Fuad I of Egypt in 1920 to support him in a massive scholarly study of Islamic Architecture in Egypt. Out of this came two great multi-volume works, Early Muslim Architecture and The Islamic Architecture of Egypt. He also acquired a massive library on the subject and a myriad of photographs, worked on bibliographies and other studies, and made himself the authority. At least a few decades ago the Survey of Egypt's map of Islamic monuments in Cairo was universally known as "the Creswell map," and may still be. He became a Professor at Fuad I University, later (and also earlier) Cairo University.

When I first went to Egypt in 1972 as a Center for Arabic Studies Abroad (CASA) student at the American University in Cairo (AUC), I was aware of Creswell's reputation. He was one of those great figures of the post-World War I generation, born before my grandmother who'd died a decade before, and I assumed that he, too, was long gone. I know that many of my younger readers must think of 1972 as a time when dinosaurs or at least mastodons still roamed the earth, but I can attest that I discovered that indeed, there were still a few giants in the earth in those days. I soon noticed that the AUC community tended to go into a hushed awe when a tiny, wizened, very frail elderly man with a cane, usually dressed in white and as impeccably as in the picture above, passed through the courtyard. So far as I could tell, he might have lived in the school, or at least in the "Creswell Library" which held the Creswell collection. Finally someone said, "that's Creswell." I think my response was, "Is he any relation to the Creswell?" The answer was that he was "the" Creswell. He was 92, walked with a cane, and was deaf as a post, but he was treated like a mythic being, and in some ways, he was. His book collection was housed at AUC, over in the Center for Arabic Studies, not the main library (which was two libraries ago in AUC terms, so I'm not sure where the Creswell collection is housed today). AUC had snagged him when he retired from the University of Cairo. As long as Creswell lived, though, they weren't taking any chances on losing his library. They got it, and they got all his photographic prints as well; the negatives went to the Ashmolean at Oxford. In 1970, he received his knighthood.

Creswell, who never married, was in that year of 1972-73 very much under the protective custody and mother-hen protection of the librarian of the Creswell Library, an enormous (perhaps three or four times his own diminutive weight and volume) Coptic matron known, if memory serves, as Madame Ghamrawi.

I left Egypt after my study year in about May of 1973; according to Wikipedia, Creswell finally returned to Britain the following month of June 1973 (he'd only sporadically visited since leaving in World War I) due to doctor's orders. He died the following April, age 94. When I next returned to Cairo, the folklore of AUC held that what really killed him was having to return to England; if the doctors let him stay in his beloved Egypt, he might have still been around, some claimed.

I can't claim to have "known" him. As the Wikipedia article notes, prior to his death one of his conditions for letting AUC house his library was that mere students couldn't touch the books. He was a researcher, not a teacher/mentor type. By the time I got there his aloofness was greatly enhanced by his stone deafness; I doubt if anyone other than Madame Ghamrawi or the senior Administration of AUC can claim to have known him by then. But I saw him frequently, and I just wanted to note it for the record. His plans, drawings, photographs and analysis of the Islamic monuments of Cairo remains the fundamental underpinning of every study which has followed. Though not academically trained, he trained himself and created an academic field that had barely existed. His work provides many of the fundamental plans and surveys on which later scholarship has been based. A product of the colonial system and an "Orientalist" in a day when that was not yet a pejorative, Creswell was also one of a kind. I really don't know of any other "amateur" whose incredible skill and devotion to a single subject remains quite so influential.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

About Tahrir Tomorrow

Tomorrow, many of the Tahrir demonstrators who brought down Husni Mubarak plan to return to Tahrir Square to renew protests, this time expressing disillusionment with lingering elements of the old regime, the aloofness of the Military Council, and the slow pace of change. Last week a protest fizzled; they want a large turnout lest the old guard decide that the revolutionary fervor is spent and it's time for business as usual. They will be demanding — well, it depends on which organizing group you ask, since various lists of demands being circulated include everything from prosecution of a laundry list of former (and some current) officials to Nasser-style socialist reforms to breaking relations with Israel. Various groups are promoting their own ideological agendas, though a common list of demands is now circulating.

Mahmoud Salem, who has long blogged as  only revealed his identity during the Revolution, has a thoughtful post about why he will be attending, which include a call for a Bill of Rights-type set of guarantees of basic civil and political rights that are protected regardless of the ideological agenda of an elected government. I commend it to you.

Situation in Yemen Deteriorating

The violence in Yemen seems to be spiraling to new levels. President Salih is seeking to arrest Hashid tribal leader Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, on charges of waging armed rebellion; while the US is ordering out nonessential diplomatic staff.

The dangers of a descent into civil war in Yemen are fairly obvious: there are multiple fracture lines (North/South, Sunni/Zaydi, and multiple tribal and regional centers of gravity) along which the society could divide. I keep thinking the situation is at a tipping point, but it seems to just keep tipping.

I'm not sure that Yemen counts as part of "Arab Spring," anymore. None of the sides are chanting \Salmiyya, Salmiyya as the police advance, but perhaps that's inevitable in one of the world's most heavily armed populations.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Van Creveld: Israel Doesn't Need the West Bank to be Secure

The distinguished Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld, writing in the Daily Forward, argues that "Israel Doesn't Need the West Bank to Be Secure." Everyone pontificating about how the 1967 borders are impossible should read it. And note that he's an Israeli and a military historian with an international reputation. Thanks to The Arabist for pointing this out.

UN Fired on in Abyei as North Moves In

The big question mark hovering over the separation of an independent Southern Sudan from the North has been the disputed region of Abyei, and Northern Sudanese forces — pro-Khartoum militias and  Sudanese Army forces as well — moved into Abyei Town over the weekend. Now the United Nations is reporting that four of its helicopters have been fired upon, though it has also been reported that the UN has clashed with forces apparently wearing Southern uniforms as well. Al Jazeera English has video:

Obviously the recent move could provoke open conflict, thus threatening the so-far peaceful separation of the two parts of Sudan, with the independence of the South scheduled for July 9.

The Hashid Seize Government Buildings in Sana‘a'

Several key buildings Sana‘a' have been seized by members of the Al-Ahmar clan and their Hashid tribal confederation. Although President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih himself comes from a small tribe within the Hashid, but in March the Hashid, ledf by leader Sadiq al-Ahmar, joined the opposition to Salih.

There has been heavy fighting in the capital, and refugees are fleeing the city. Salih's defiant refusal to sign the GCC-brokered deal has produced a new wave of protest. He has weathered it all so far, and he is obviously gambling he can continue to do so.

A Personal Note on Joplin, Missouri

This is not a personal blog and I don't intend to let it become one, but since I've been a little light on posting recently I wanted to take a personal moment to talk about Joplin, Missouri, my home town, which, unless you are totally oblivious to the news, has been devastated by what has just been upgraded to an EF-5 tornado..

The photo at left, or variants of it from different angles, has appeared on every US news network by now, as a symbol of the disaster. It may become the icon of the town's survival. That cross, the only thing still standing nearby and thus being seen as an inspiring symbol, used to be the front facade of Saint Mary's Catholic Church, my home parish growing up. I served mass in the post-World War II church that preceded this one. Most of my experience was with that older, post-World War II church, shaped like a quonset hut, that was replaced by the one whose rubble appears in the picture, but I also knew this church well, and my father's funeral was held there. The school next door, also destroyed, was where I spent the seventh and eighth grades. (Tonight the principal told CNN they'd saved the school records, so at least I won't have to go back and redo the seventh and eighth grades in my 60s.) But all joking aside, seeing my home town devastated has been both traumatic and, like the proverbial train wreck, something I've had trouble taking my eyes off of. Today we learned the Weather Service had reclassified the tornado as an EF-5, the worst possible; and it's the deadliest single tornado since the Weather Service began keeping official records in 1950. Not the kind of record the city fathers dream of, I'm sure.

Some commenters have asked, and here's the short version on the personal side: my parents' generation are all gone now, so I have only cousins back home, but many of them are people I've been extremely close to. All are physically fine. One cousin was in the general path of the storm but it either lifted or turned and she and her home were spared, though nearby blocks were devastated.  One cousin who lives outside the damage zone nonetheless saw his place of business flattened, so I suspect he'll be job hunting. But so far as I know up to now, all the close kin are fine and so are their homes.

At least for those of us who didn't grow up in a big metropolis, it's odd to see all the network newscasts originating from the old home town. All the anchors are in Joplin the last couple of days; we're the new Tahrir Square or Benghazi until the next crisis strikes. But Joplin will still be there when everyone leaves. Joplin hasn't gotten this much attention since Bonnie and Clyde, who had a major shootout in the town, killing several cops. (It's even in the movie.) We don't get national attention unless there's either a major crime or a national disaster.

I'm still working on a long piece and will have the usual short ones, but wanted to give some indication of why I'm a bit preoccupied.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Decision to Prosecute the Mubaraks

The decision to refer Husni Mubarak and his two sons for trial on a variety of charges, including in the former President's case the killing of protesters, will no doubt please many of the young demonstrators that brought him down, but will sit less comfortably, I suspect, with the very-much-still-present remnants of the Establishment, not least the Army. While many Egyptians applauded his removal and would welcome recovery of any misappropriated funds, I suspect not all will welcome a public trial of an 83-year-old former President and onetime war hero. I worry that instead of uniting the country it will more deeply divide it, especially if (as the charges of murder would permit) they seek to pursue this as a capital case. There is already a backlash against the revolution among many of the old guard, and this may actually strengthen their hand.

Salih's Decision to Defy GCC

I joked last week that I thought the odds of Yemeni President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih agreeing to the GCC plan for him to step down in 30 days, which he had said he would sign on Sunday, was probably only slightly more likely than the (also predicted) end of the world on Saturday. As everyone knows, the world didn't end, and Salih didn't sign. His continuing defiance continues to roil Yemen. There is little sign of either side backing down, and Salih is increasingly sounding like all deals are off. He's going the Syrian or Libyan route of toughing it out if it means fighting to the last Yemeni.

The heady days of talking about "jasmine" and "lotus" revolutions seem distant now, and "Arab Spring" looks like it's going to be a long, hot summer. I still don't see how Salih has a reasonable chance of restoring order with himself still in charge, but self-delusion seems to go with overly long authoritarian rule.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Regular Posting Will Resume Shortly

I've been preoccupied with the record-setting tornado damage in my home town of Joplin, Missouri, today. Regular posting should resume tomorrow.

After an Earlier Revolution in Egypt

An intriguing piece about a work I'd never heard of, "Memoirs of a Donkey-Cart Driver ", that apparently appeared shorly after Egypt's 1919 Revolution. Sounds very interesting.

The long post on sectarianism is still under work. On a personal note, my home town, Joplin, Missouri, was devastated yesterday by what was at least an EF-4 Tornado, and while my immediate relatives are okay, my hometown is a shambles. I'll be somewhat preoccupied with this today trying to reach friends etc., but hope to have the sectarian post up this afternoon sometime.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Post on Maspero is Coming, but Also Growing

My regular readers know that sometimes I give short posts with simple links, and sometimes I embark on extensive historical discursuses (discurses? discursi?), and sometimes I just rant at length. I said earlier today that I'd be posting later today on the ongoing Coptic strike at Maspero in Cairo, which continues despite Pope Shenouda's telling them to go home. As I've been working on this post I find it has, like Topsy in Uncle Tom's Cabin, "just growed," and in fact has even metastasized.  It is turning into a long discussion of sectarian conflict in Egypt, and it is continuing to grow. It will turn up over the weekend or early next week depending on family commitments and the Muse of Blogging.

Salih Says He'll Sign But Calls New Elections: Huh?

As I noted on Wednesday, the day Yemen's ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih was going to sign the GCC transition deal, he didn't. On Thursday, he promised he'd sign it on Sunday, and then called for new elections. That muddles things further: does he still plan to sign the deal Sunday, or are the elections a diversion? Based on his track record, I'd bet on the latter. Unless, of course, he chose Sunday because he's gambling that the world really is going to end tomorrow. The odds of Salih stepping aside Sunday may be a bit better than the Rapture happening tomorrow, but in both cases I'll believe it when I see it.

Aswany on the Egyptian Revolution

The Guardian interviews Alaa al-Aswany, the celebrated Egyptian novelist (The Yacoubian Building) and activist, on the Revolution.

Back to Tahrir

Demonstrators today in Cairo's Midan al-Tahrir denouncing the rumors of a Mubarak amnesty (which the Military Council has denied); Coptsz in nearby Maspero demanding reopening of damaged churches (I'll have a separate post on Maspero later). Dissatisfaction with the Military Council seems to be growing. Next Friday is being billed as a new day of protest to return to the streets. The Arab Spring is starting to look a bit like a long, hot summer.

More extensive comments tonight.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Thoughts on the Obama Speech

As I noted earlier today I was one of the few Middle East specialists who didn't hear President Obama's speech, since I was chairing a panel at the time. One result is that by the time I read the speech and watched excerpts, the evening newscasts and others of the commentariat had already weighed in. So I'm going to keep my comments to a minimum.

Most of the headlines have focused on Israel and the reference to the 1967 borders as the basis for a settlement, with minor land swaps. This was, and is, quite simply what has been the basis for negotiations since the process really began in the Oslo process. It was the basic assumption behind Camp David II, Taba, and every hypothetical peace plan since. It's been the basic assumption for years. Netanyahu's immediate — almost instantaneous — rejection and the knee-jerk reaction of Mitt Romney and other Republicans (and Fox News) have made it seem as if this is a major shift in US policy and a gauntlet thrown down before Israel on the eve of Netanyahu's visit to the US. Yet these parameters were already negotiating points for Israel, whether under a Labor Prime Minister (Ehud Barak) or a Kadima Prime Minister (Ehud Olmert). So why is this the headline?

The speech wasn't even mainly about the Israel-Palestinian issue: it was about Arab Spring. Whether the focus on the Israeli issue is just politics as usual or simply a Pavlovian reaction to any criticism of Israel, this wasn't what the speech was really even about.

I recognize, of course, that the decision to give this speech on the eve of Netanyahu's arrival was a gamble, since in Israel at least everything will be interpreted through the lens of the Netanyahu visit. I don't know why this particular timing was chosen, though I suspect the White House might have hoped to generate some positive press in the Arab world before the appearance of Obama speaking to AIPAC and Netanyahu addressing the US Congress.

The actual message of the speech, general and idealistic as it may be, is being ignored in the US coverage. I think so far the overseas coverage is a little better.

But overall, I fear the reportage so far is a microcosm of US preoccupation with the Middle East: whatever happens, whether in Morocco or Yemen or Bahrain, is passed through a filter of "Is it good for Israel?" The fact that should be obvious to anyone who has been watching events is that Arab Spring has almost nothing to do with Israel, or for that matter with the United States. I say "almost" because many Egyptian protesters did criticize the peace treaty with Israel, and the long US support for Mubarak. But these aren't what the protests were about.

At a moment of profound and fundamental change, which the President at least acknowledged and praised, much of the US coverage is still focusing on an issue the demonstrators are not, an issue which has long dominated decision-making on not just Arab-Israeli, but all Middle Eastern developments.

One final thought: while I think it was a good speech, and is being distorted in the commentary, I also think that the pre-speech hype was overdone. No one, not a Cicero or a Cato the Elder, could have transformed Arab perceptions of the Middle East through a single speech on general principles, and lived up to the anticipation that was built up prior to the speech. Someone — the White House PR folks, the media — raised the bar so high that a certain disappointment was inevitable.

And that, for now, is all I have to say on the subject.

Housekeeping Note on Obama's Speech

Because I had to chair an MEI panel on Libya that directly overlapped with President Obama's speech, I haven't yet read the speech. Though there are plenty of pundits in town who will comment with little more than a sound byte to go on, I insist on watching or at least reading the speech before pontificating. So stay tuned for comment later today when time permits me to view it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Have Qadhafi's Wife and Daughter Fled the Country?

While I naturally suspect that this is either wild rumor or deliberate disinformation, there are reports that Qadhafi's wife Safiya and daughter Aisha are in Djerba, Tunisia. A great deal of skepticism is called for, but an interesting tale nonetheless.

Yemen: No Signature

My post of earlier today on the news that Yemeni President Salih would sign the GCC transition agreement today may have seemed a bit cynical and snid about the prospects of his really doing so this time, but once again Salih has proven that snide cynicism is probably the best way to approach this drawn-out GCC process. The deal fell through again, despite US pressure.

Mark Katz Has a Blog of His Travel Writing

Prof. Mark Katz of George Mason University is well known around these parts as a specialist on Russian relations with the Middle East. Now he's launched a blog not for his political commentary but of travel writing he's done through the years, with tabs for Oman, Iran, Russia and Yemen. I thought I'd call your attention to it.

Yemen's Salih May Sign Transition Deal Today, This Time for Real. No, Seriously. Maybe.

Yemen's President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih announced in 2002 that he would not run for another term in 2006. As you may have noticed, he eventually changed his mind. Similarly, last month, when he was about t sign the GCC-brokered deal that would have seen him leave office in a month, he balked at the eleventh hour. So Yemen watchers are always skeptical when Salih says he's on the way out the door. He never seems able to find it.

The deal is allegedly on again, and both sides have said they will sign it today. A unity government would be formed, and Salih would leave within 30 days. They would sign it today, they said.

It's now well into the evening in Yemen, and I have yet to see an announcement it has been signed. (Perhaps they're still looking for a pen?) Even if it is, a lot can happen in 30 days, so I wouldn't pop the champagne corks just yet.

UPDATE: There's been a last-minute hitch. Surprise, Surprise!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Reports Mubarak to Ask for Amnesty Provoking Debate

Sorry to be so Egypt-heavy,. but actual developments are occurring there, while Syria and Yemen right now are mostly ongoing body counts. A press report saying that ousted Egyptian President Husni Mubarak will is preparing a statement to be broadcast on television in which he will apologize to the Egyptian people for mistakes he may have made, offer to tranafer his wealth to the state, and ask that the ruling Armed Forces Council grant him and his family amnesty, is provoking debate in Egypt. The report, which originated with the independent newspaper Al-Shorouq, has not been confirmed, but it has been picked up elsewhere and is spurring debate, with some insisting that the Army Council cannot grant him amnesty.

The 83-year old ex-President and his wife have been detained and interrogated and Mrs. Mubarak has reportedly turned over several million dollars. It is also believed that Gulf states are pressuring the Council to grant the Mubaraks amnesty. But many of those who lost family in the uprising (over 800 acknowledged dead) appear determined to punish the ex-President.

Personally I would prefer to see a national reconciliation process like that in post-apartheid South Africa, rather than show trials and punshment (after seizure and returnof misappropriated funds). But, of course, no one is asking me, and I understand feelings are running high.

As to the legality of an amnesty, I'm no expert on Egyptian law, but the constitutional status is in a sort of limbo right now. Does the constitutional Presidential pardon power inhere in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in the absence of a President? Or perhaps the Cabinet? Or is it suspended until a new President is elected later this year? I don't know and I doubt if anyone does, short of a court case.

Naguib Sawiris Kicks Himself Upstairs to Focus on Politics

Naguib Sawiris, Executive Chairman of Egypt's Orascom telecommunications giant and one of the (if not the) richest Egyptian businessmen is yielding the Executive Chairman post to the company's CEO because he has "decided to be more focused on social and political work, aiming to play a role in the transformation of post-revolution Egypt into a civil democracy," according to this business article on Al-Masry al-Youm English. Two major points left out of the article that would be intuitive to Egyptian readers but not necessarily to others:
  1. Sawiris is the ultimate, overall major investor in Al-Masry Al-Youm, though they don't disclose that here.
  2. Sawiris is a Copt, one of the most visible Copts in the country who isn't the Pope or carries the name Boutros-Ghali (Boutros or Yusuf).
What this means is unclear. He's not going to run for President — he's a Copt — but the growing sectarian issues may have some influence on his decision. While if the change in Egypt is merely a change in which millionaires run the country — from Gamal Mubarak's business cronies to a new bunch of millionaires — it may not be a good sign. (Though to be fair, Sawiris is not a millionaire. He's a billionaire.)

Gamal al-Banna (Hasan's Younger Brother) Criticizes Salafism

This is not really news because he's spoken out before on the subject, but Gamal al-Banna,. younger (now a sprightly 91) brother of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna, has given an interview to Al-Masry Al-Youm criticizing Salafism and (implicitly) the Brotherhood and favoring a more modernist interpretation of Islam. The interview may be lost on those unfamiliar with debates about ijtihad and such since it's somewhat abbreviated, but for those familiar with these issues it may be of interest.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Tantawi: The Sphinx Speaks at Last

For the first time since Husni Mubarak stepped down on February 11, Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, the nearest thing Egypt has to a head of state at the moment, has given a 20-minute public speech, to a Police Academy graduation. He spoke about 20 minutes and it was broadcast on Egyptian television. He seems to have tried to encourage the cadets, comparing the police situation since the Revolution to the Army's disarray after the 1967 defeat. He may be trying to reassure them, given the fact that to a certain degree the Army and the police were on opposite sides during the revolution, and the former Interior Minister, instead of attending the graduation, is in prison, but the comparison is not likely to sit all that well with a lot of people.

I've noted Tantawi's total silence several times on this blog, and others had been struck by it too. Perhaps he felt he needed to make a public appearance.

And the Winner is . . . Someone Who Wasn't Running

Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil ElAraby has been elected the new Secretary-General of the Arab League, which is interesting since, until just before the vote, he hadn't been a candidate. By tradition, the Secretary-General comes from the host country, which means all have been Egyptian, except for one Tunisian when the League was headquartered in Tunis after Egypt's expulsion due to its peace with Israel. But Egypt's candidate this time, Mustafa al-Fiqi, was seen as a symbol of the old regime, and many Egyptians opposed the nomination. Qatar fielded a rival candidate, but at the eleventh hour, Egypt announced that Fiqi was withdrawing and that ElAraby would be its candidate; the Qatari withdrew and the deal was done.

ElAraby is a former diplomat with a distinguished career and widely admired in the region; he has also shown a new emphasis in his few weeks as Foreign Minister, being more critical of Israel and seeking openings with Iran.

Breaking the Coptic Strike at Maspero

Over the weekend, Egypt's simmering sectarian tensions were exacerbated yet again when armed "thugs" attacked Coptic demonstrators who had been staging a strike in front of the Egyptian Radio/Television building along the Nile in what is known as the Maspero neighborhood. Some 78 people were injured, some from gunshots.The attackers were not bearded Salafis, but rather fit the pattern of the armed ruffians known as baltagiyya, often accused of being provocateurs from the old regime.

Though some have claimed this was not religiously motivated, it is certainly being interpreted as another attempt to ignite sectarian conflict, and Coptic Pope Shenouda III has urged that the strike be ended immediately, though the demonstrators continued yesterday. Zeinobia's thoughts on her blog are here.

The Nakba Day Clashes

The attempts to enter Israel yesterday from Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon and Syria in observance of Nakba Day have drawn a lot of attention. Most of the commentary I've seen centers on the rarity of clashes on the Golan, which are almost unheard of. Obviously, as Israel has suggested, Syria allowed this to happen; obviously too, the Syrians were no doubt seeking to divert attention from their internal difficulties.

But I think another much-discussed theme deserves attention: the extent to which this unusual Nakba Day protest is an outgrowth of Arab Spring. The marchers themselves are unarmed, forcing Israel to fire on them, and thus drawing attention to the moribund peace process. The two sides will of course perceive the event quite differently, but in the end, something new has entered the situation: a new tactic which is reminiscent of the Intifada, but from across borders. It could, however, have potentially explosive blowback.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Egyptian Revolution's First 100 Days: Wrestling With Uncertainties

Today the theme of the Friday demonstrations in Egypt's Midan al-Tahrir was National Unity and Solidarity with the Palestinians. The former theme derives from the widespread concerns over last weekends deaths in Imbaba, where sectarian tensions exploded into violence. As I and many others noted at the time, the Imbaba killings took place 100 days after the initial day of demonstrations leading to uprising and revolution, January 25.

At least since Franklin Roosevelt's day, it has been fashionable to assess the performance of the "first 100 days" of any movement. But Egypt's revolution is far from complete, and its future remains unsettled. Sectarian violence is only one of many aspects of the uncertainty and insecurity that is currently mixed with cautious optimism.

Trying to read the tea leaves from a distance, it strikes me that there are several elements playing into the uncertainty. Among them:

1. Continued uncertainty about the intentions of, or even who speaks for, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Since February 11 the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has been the real executive body in Egypt. But although Field Marshall Tantawi is regularly shown meeting visiting heads of state and government, he himself remains as silent as the Sphinx, and rather less visible. The SCAF posts its communiques in image form on its Facebook page, rather than on a website; they are signed collectively. A few two- and three-star generals speak to the media from time to time, but there seems to be some confusion about how authoritative #51, released today, appeared on the Facebook page and was taken down for a while before reappearing. In the past week, after previous statements that Egyptians abroad would be allowed to vote in elections, a spokesman indicated they would not be (because their votes could be bought by foreign countries, it was implied). Then it was clarified that no firm decision has been made, and now the word seems to be that they probably will be. Maybe. The Council has denied that it is holding revolutionary demonstrators. It has now said it will release them (the ones it doesn't hold). It promised to try those provoking sectarian violence in military courts, then suggested they'd be tried in civilian courts. Since it doesn't communicate regularly except through Facebook, it's hard to know who is in charge and who's making the decisions. Lingering suspicions that the military or some part thereof might decide to hold on to power rather than hand over to an elected government, or at least may have a Turkish model in mind, adds to the concerns. (The Cabinet is not much clearer: after indicating that the Army and police, who traditionally were not allowed to vote, would be allowed to, the Cabinet fudged and said this was under consideration.

2. Continuing insecurity and the absence of police.  As this New Yorker account reminds us, violence has not just been limited to sectarian clashes; there's a general  insecurity in part provoked by the continuing under-presence of the police.Withdrawn in the midst of the uprising, they've never been fully restored to pre-revolutionary strength, while the looting of police stations has meant a proliferation of small arms among the populace. The rise of neighborhood committees has helped some, but is no full replacement. Then comes the question of who is to blame. Many are blaming Mubarak supporters and the baltagiyya thugs of the former ruling party, as this article does. Others blame Salafis, the ex-State Security agents, the Saudis, the Muslim Brotherhood. Some suspect the Army is encouraging instability in order to have an excuse to postpone elections. Conspiracy theories are typical in a time like this, but worrisome, since they can lead to explosions like Imbaba.

There are other elements of course, but the uncertainty is a reminder of the stakes.

Amid Rumors He Was Wounded, Qadhafi Denies All

A wave of rumors originating apparently with the Italian Foreign Minister and suggesting Qadhafi might be wounded and might have left Tripoli has been met with a Qadhafi speech (on State TV but audio only) denying all and denouncing NATO.

Missing Posts May Return, Says Blogger

UPDATE: Everything seems to be back. New posts coming later.

 Google says Blogger's back, and it seems to be working alright, except for the disappearance of all my posts from May 11 and 12. They're saying they're working to restore those as well, so let's see what happens. They weren't earth-shattering, nor my long historical essays that take lots of work. I'll have some normal posts later.

The Great Blogger Blackout of 2011

About 3:30 pm yesterday, Blogger, the widely-used blogging platform that hosts this site, all others with blogspot.com addresses, and more, said it was going read-only for a maintenance issue. It only just went back up, after almost a day down. Last night they were saying that they were trying to restore posts from May 11 and 12 that had vanished. My posts for those days were, however, still visible. Sometime overnight, those posts disappeared. I have no idea if or when they will return. Meanwhile, posts I normally prepare ahead of time could not be written as I had no access to the platform.

I have stuck with Blogger because it's free and easy to use; it's been quite reliable; after all, it's owned by Google. This is the first time I've encountered anything like this. I don't know if the Wednesday and Thursday posts will reappear or not. I am starting to put something together for today, but due to other work it may not appear until evening.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Finance Minister: Egypt's Economy Has Lost $3.5 Billion

The Egyptian Revolution and continuing labor unrest and strikes have cost Egypt's economy at least US $3.5 billion, according to Finance Minister Samir Radwan. Some $2.2 billion of that is in lost tourism revenues. In addition, foreign direct investment, originally estimated at $7 billion for the fiscal year ending in June, is now estimated at $3 to $4 billion.

Egypt's economic problems were ironically a main trigger of the protests, but during thr uncertaintes of the present transitional period, things may well  get worse before they get better.

Syria and Yemen Continue to Bleed

It's clear that a significant number ofr of demonstrators were killed in theYemeni city of Ta'izz yesterday, and also that Syria's crackdown is continuing. The almost complete exclusion of foreign journalists from Syria makes it hard to verify all the accusations being made or to confirm that YouTube videos are current. Nor is coverage of Yemen's provincial cities much better.

I;'ve talked a lot about Egypt lately, and will have a lengthy piece up soon, but only because there, change is already under way, albeit in a two steps forward, one step back sort of way. Simply listing the number of protesters mowed down by live fire does little to illuminate likely outcomes, but we all should keep in mind that these ongoing conflicts are almost certainly going to continue. Despite wishful thinking by some Syrian spokespersons, the Syrian uprisin shows little sign of slackening, and Yemen remains at a boil. And tomorrow if Friday.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Blaming the Messenger, Chapter 9,478: MB Guide Blames Imbaba on "Secular Journalists"

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood General Guide Muhammad Badie has now been quoted as saying that "certain secular journalists" have incited sectarian clashes like the one in Imbaba: “They said the Imbaba violence represented sectarian strife between Muslims and Christians,” he added. “Then evidence pointed at the remnants of the former regime and the dissolved State Security Investigation Services being behind it.”

Oh. Bearded Salafis clashing with Copts is not, in fact, sectarian violence? Or is it that the agenda of these "secular journalists" is to, umm, report what's happening? (In the old days you never had to worry about the press actually reporting this kind of thing.)

Circling the Thrones: Is There a Military Subtext to the Proposed GCC Expansion?

The idea broached only yesterday, of expanding the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to include Jordan and Morocco,  seems to be moving ahead rather rapidly. The GCC has instructed its Ministerial Council to discuss accession terms.  While some in the Gulf are expressing caution, others seem enthusiastic.

It's not entirely clear whose idea this was. Jordan reportedly applied for membership, but the Moroccaan case is less clear: this report from the Emirates News Agency WAM says that "Leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have welcomed a request by Jordan to join the group . . . In a similar move, the Supreme Council of the GCC also assigned the Ministerial Council to invite the foreign minister of Morocco to enter into negotiations to finalize the necessary procedures for joining the Council based on a preceding communication with the Moroccan Kingdom during which it was invited to join the GCC." That seems to sound as if Jordan applied, but the GCC approached Morocco with an invitation. Morocco has also reportedly reaffirmed its support for the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) which links it to its North African neighbors.

Most commentators noted, as I did yesterday, that adding Jordan and Morocco to the GCC even though they are not in the Gulf would create an Arab Monarchies Club, perhaps as a bulwark against the Arab Spring. (Yemen, the only country on the Arabian Peninsula not in the GCC, has applied for membership and is going through a lengthy process, but may not be a full member before 2016 or so. And that was before the Yemeni revolt.)

Another thought occurs. Not only would an expanded GCC be a Monarchs' Club, but, as we were forcibly reminded when the Saudis and Emiratis intervened in Bahrain, GCC members have the power to intervene to protect the regimes in fellow member states. Bahrain has been quieted under virtual Saudi occupation.

Besides having thrones, Morocco and Jordan each have something that few Gulf states have: strong, well-trained Armies. In fact Jordanian officers, on secondment or retired, serve in many Gulf Armies already. Could one reason for floating the idea being to add to the GCC's military capabilities? If so, fear of Iran might provide a pretext, but the Bahraini example suggests that regime protection might be another.

Egyptians Planning to March on Gaza for Nakba Day

Groups of Egyptians are planning to march from Tahrir Square to Gaza, arriving in time for the May 15 observance of the Palestinian Nakba (the "Catastrophe" of 1948). Though it's being called a "march,": this account indicates they will be using buses.

Apparently a range of groups are planning to go, from many ideological tendencies, including Zamalek and Ahly ":Ultra" football fans.

Although Egypt has said it intends to open the Rafah crossing into Gaza, it will be interesting to see if the authorities permit this potentially provocative gesture to cross the border.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Imbaba: An Ominous Calendar Coincidence

If things weren't bad enough . . . I just stumbled on something tonight that I have not yet seen mentioned in general press accounts in Egypt or elsewhere, in English or Arabic, though I'm sure some Coptic religious sites must have picked up on it.

The killings, Coptic church burning, and violence last Saturday evening in Imbaba coincided with the eve of Sunday, May 8, which corresponds to the date 30 Barmouda (Parmouti) in the ancient Coptic calendar. That is the Feast of the Martyrdom of Saint Mark the Evangelist, Apostle of Egypt and first Patriarch/Pope of the Coptic Church. The violence against Copts on the eve of the Feast of the Martyrdom of their traditional founder is going to have a profound symbolic religious meaning for at least some Copts, and adds to the inflammatory nature of these clashes. I'm sure this was referred to in many  Sunday sermons in churches throughout Egypt.

Army, Government Cracking Down on Sectarian Violence

Egypt's interim government and Armed Forces Council has been moving over the past few days to protect churches and defuses the sectarian tensions created by the Imbaba deaths. Churches are being protected y the Army, while the Justice Minister has warned of an "iron fist"; tensions are still high. Some 190 people were arrested after the violence, and arrests are continuing.

According to Zeinobia, the authorities have now arrested Salafi Sheikh Abu Anas,
who was shown on a widely circulated YouTube video threatening to burn all the churches of Imbaba and denouncing Christians, insulting Pope Shenouda, and generally inflaming the situation. He reportedly subsequently denied saying these things: don't these people understand they're on video all over the Internet? For those who understand Egyptian Arabic you can find Abu Anas' video here,  but I will not embed it here since it's inflammatory hate speech of the first order and I'm not going to have it on this blog.

The supporters of the Revolution have generally been horrified by the deteriorating sectarian situation. The Muslim Brotherhood denounced the violence but has also sought alliances with some of the same Salafi forces behind the troubles. Neither the Salafis nor the Brotherhood — nor the Coptic Church hierarchy, to be fair — supported the January 25 youth movement until late in the game, if ever. Many of the young revolutionaries are calling for harsh roundups of religious radicals. At first the Army said those arrested would be tried in military court, though ending military trials of civilians is a key demand of the revolutionaries. There are some reports they may be tried in civilian court eventually.

The Army, much criticized by the Copts, is talking tough now, but seems to be closing the barn door after the horses have fled.

None of this is encouraging news, except for the arrest of the rabble-rousers.

GCC to "Consider" Membership for Jordan, Morocco?

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Secretary-General has announced that the GCC will "consider" procedures to admit Jordan and Morocco to the organization. It was not clear if he was talking about full membership or some sort of associate status, since neither is in the Gulf. Jordan at least borders Saudi Arabia, but Morocco is a real outlier.

The obvious assumption, assuming this were to actually happen, would be that the GCC could become a sort of Arab Monarchs' Club, presumably in response to the wave of change sweeping the region.

"Abeer" May Actually Exist

The "woman named Abeer" whose rumored kidnapping sparked the violence that left twelve dead last Saturday appears to actually exist. A woman claiming her name is Abeer Talaat has given an interview to Tahrir TV and a published interview to the Islamist al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya. (Though if they mean this site I can't find it.) (Another longer account here, which gives her name as Abeer Fakhry. Apparently the confusion is over whether she has remarried, and she says she has not.) Unlike Kamilia Shehata, the similar cause celebre allegedly kidnapped by the Church, Abeer Fakhry claims she converted to Islam, left her home in Upper Egypt, is divorcing her husband, moved to Cairo and became involved with a man she plans to marry when her divorce is final, and then was abducted by the Church.

Now, I think it's pretty clear there are a lot of questions. She is free now, but she has not fled to the authorities but has instead gone on television? Earlier, officials had denied she even existed, and some Egyptians are still highly skeptical. Obviously if there really was a provocation by the Church it should be a matter for the police and not for vigilante justice, but it is somewhat different than if the violence was provoked by a completely unfounded rumor. I suspect there is going to be more to this story.

For those who know Arabic, here's the actual statement:

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mubarak Photo Trivia Question

Blogger Zeinobia at Egyptian Chronicles is always great for nostalgic Egyptian photos. Given everything else that has been happening she was a bit late with her 83rd Mubarak birthday post, but redeems any tardiness with this photo I'd never seen before:

Yes, it's a very young Husni Mubarak. Here's the trivia question: What else do you notice about the picture?

Look at the insignia on the hat. See the crown? Mubarak graduated from the Military Academy in 1949 and finished Air Force pilot training in 1950. He was in the service of King Farouq.

The Conspiracy Theories Accumulate

I know I already have posted a couple of items today about the Imbaba sectarian violence and the continuing demonstrations emerging from Saturday's events, but as I look over the blogs and tweets from Egypt I seem to detect several emerging conspiracy theories for those who assume that something more than just Salafi Muslim versus Coptic Christian hostility is in play here.

Without going into detail, the conspiracy theories seem to divide into three main categories:
  1. The Saudis are behind it. Certainly Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arabs have supported various Salafi groups in Egypt from time to time. Certainly too the Saudis supported Husni Mubarak to the bitter end. And certainly they are not enthusiasts for the Revolution. None of this explains why they would provoke sectarian violence as a matter of policy. (A variant of this is that the Americans are behind it too, though radical Salafism would not seem to be our likely client.) Except for the idea that chaos might bring back the old regime.
  2. Mubarak Supporters and the old NDP loyalists are behind it. Here again the idea is to promote chaos and civil war, so that the old regime will be missed and yearned for. One possible piece of evidence: the burning of the apartment building and shops was reportedly carried out by young men not in Salafi "garb," suggesting they might have been NDP baltagiyya.
  3. The Army Council is Behind it. Or at least standing aside to let it happen, presumably to hold on to power and find an excuse to postpone elections.
None of these is as totally absurd as the old regime claim that the uprising was some sort of Israeli-Iranian plot. Both the Saudis and Mubarak loyalists would like to put a brake on change, and the Army has been ambivalent in these events, to be generous.

But I tend not to turn to conspiracy theories unless there is real evidence. The Army has been slow to act, partly I think through a cumbersome command structure that does not encourage initiative on the part of local commanders. Partly perhaps through inefficient communications. The Salafists may have Saudi or other Gulf support, but are pursuing their own interests, and the rapid spread of rumors over Twitter and Facebook says that those social networks not only helped make a revolution, but can help provoke intolerant sectarian Flashmobs as well.

Muslim Brotherhood Condemns Imbaba Violence

The Muslim Brotherhood has condemned the violence between Muslims and Copts in Imbaba on Saturday. Though it is unlikely to win over many Copts, who suspect its members of holding attitudes similar to the Salafis who attacked the church, Brotherhood General Guide Dr. Muhammad Badie denounced the use of violence:
The chairman condemned the attacks on the Imbaba Church emphasizing that such actions were ignorant stressing Islam denounced violence and terrorism. He stated that since its establishment the MB has always called for tolerance and peace and that such actions and efforts to promote sedition and sectarian strife were unacceptable.
Badie slammed the attack on the church stating that any attack on any civilians regardless of religious colour and creed is a sin and a crime. He maintained that Islam commanded Muslims to preserve such places, and rejects such sinful actions on all houses of worship, whether Christian or Muslim.
The Brotherhood's English website also posted the following:
Over the last two days Imbaba in Cairo has witnessed a spiraling wave of sedition and sectarian strife bearing down on Muslims and Copts alike which resulted in needless deaths, injuries and destruction.

It is on this note that the Muslim Brotherhood denounces any efforts by extremists both Muslims and Copts and counter-revolutionaries who endeavor to spoil the gains of the revolution by failing to put the nation ahead of individual comforts.

Unfortunately, these reckless people are behaving in a way which defeats the successes of the revolution and delays the progress and advancement of Egypt by deviating from the right path of the revolution.

These continued actions by unpatriotic people will sow dissension, and incite violence, aimed at wrecking the unity and cohesion of compatriots.

It is on this note that we, the MB, call for an immediate investigation and holding those responsible accountable. We fully support the decision made by the military to put those responsible to military trial so that they may eradicate such actions and prevent the spread of sabotage.

Admittedly, this statement denounces sedition without assigning blame to either side, but does seem to distance the Brotherhood from the violent Salafis without exactly supporting the Copts.

Max Rodenbeck on the Arab World's View on Bin Laden

Max Rodenbeck has a piece at the New York Review of Books blog on "Bin Laden's Death: Why the Arab World Shrugs" that is worth your time. Thanks to The Arabist for this one.

A Later Addendum: Since only us old folks know this, I should add that Max Rodenbeck, the veteran Economist correspondent in Cairo, is the son of John and Elizabeth Rodenbeck, longtime heads of the American University in Cairo Press. He grew up in Egypt and still lives there, so he knows Egypt better than almost all non-Egyptians, and his book on Cairo: The City Victorious ought to be read by anyone who knows the city, or wants to.

The Fires of Imbaba: The Specter of Sectarian Strife in Egypt

From Sarah Carr on Flickr
The Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba was a town before it was a suburb: it gave its name to Napoleon's nearby battle in 1798, and was once famed as the terminus of the camel trade from Sudan. Long since assimilated into the expansion of greater Cairo as a poor working-class district embracing not only the old village but its former agricultural lands (now a packed slum), it now has a new reason for infamy: as the site of the bloodiest Christian-Muslim violence in the capital in many years. The clashes Saturday led to at least 12 deaths, the burning of several buildings including a church, and new fears that sectarian conflict may become a feature of post-revolutionary Egypt. The involvement of radical Salafi Muslim groups and the role of rumor in provoking violence add to the concerns.

And many of the Egyptian bloggers and commentators who rejoiced in the revolution noted that Imbaba took place exactly 100 days after January 25, the date the uprising against Mubarak began in earnest. Sectarianism and the scapegoating of Copts could be a major challenge for an elected government and is already sparking new criticisms of the Supreme Military Council.

Violence between Muslims and Copts grew in the Mubarak years,with the regime often accused of looking the other way. But much of that violence was confined to Upper Egypt, where it could sometimes be explained as based on tribal or clan rivalries, or land disputes, rather than true sectarian issues. The attack on a church in Alexandria late last year was an augury that urban Egypt was not immune, and since the fall of Mubarak there have been multiple incidents, including the burning of a church souh of the capital, and concerns that the ruling Military Council has been neglecting the problem.

Since the events of Saturday and the clashes yesterday in downtown Cairo received coverage by the general press (here, for instance) and I was tied up with family duties relating to Mother's Day, let me offer a few links that may go a bit beyond the general media coverage, as well as some commentary.

Journalist and blogger Sarah Carr was on the scene and offers some eyewitness impressions at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.  [As of mid-afternoon the whole EIPR website has some sort of problem and the link is not working. I'm leaving the link in in case they recover. Later: link is working with some glitches.]   Her Flickr photostream has many photos of the burned church, including the one I've reproduced above.

The indefatigable Zeinobia has traced the origins of the violence in detail, naming some she considers instigators and offering a collection of stills and videos from around the web.

You will learn more from those two accounts than you will from the formal Egyptian media.

Now. let me add a few comments. A rumor spread that a woman named Abeer was being held at the Mar Mina Church in Imbaba because she wanted to convert to Islam. (This is distinct from the uproar over the Upper Egyptian priest's wife Camillia Shehata, also rumored among Salafi Muslims to be held a prisoner by the Church.) When Christians defended the Mar Mina church, the mob burned the Church of the Virgin Mary nearby, a Coptic-owned apartment building and a coffeehouse.

Twitter and other social media helped spread the rumor, and also spread word of what was happening to the Coptic community. Rumors such as this one, often involving intermarriage or conversion issues, have often sparked sectarian violence; social media can accellerate their spread.

Two other factors seem to have contributed: one was the continuing scarcity of police. Withdrawn from the streets by the Interior Ministry during the uprising, they have never returned to 100% presence. The other factor is the spread of firearms among the populace, many of which were looted from abandoned police stations during the revolution. The Imbaba clashes were not limited to clubs and Molotov cocktails; small arms were in use.

Egypt faced profound economic challenges before its revolution; the Transitional Government is handicapped and a future elected government will be unlikely to work miracles. That opens the way for demagogues and for scapegoating of minorities. In Upper Egypt the attacks are often directed against Coptic landowners; in the towns, against shopkeepers. But now we see a new tendency: blaming the Church itself for (allegedly) abducting women who want to convert to Islam. Never mind that Camillia Shehata has denied she's a prisoner and it isn't clear "Abeer" even exists. Radical Salafis can target a poverty-stricken, uneducated laboring class (Imbaba fills the bill perfectly) to strengthen their own support and attack the Copts.

It is not a good augury for the second 100 days of this very far from complete revolution.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

For Your Weekend Enjoyment: This is Not a Photoshop: King Abdullah II Does Star Trek

To hold you over the weekend, a piece of trivia: watch the following (seven second video):

Did the non-speaking extra in the middle of this brief scene from a 1995 episode of Star Trek: Voyager look somewhat familiar? Look closely at the still:

No, it's not your imagination: Add 16 years:

It happens to be the case that then Prince Abdullah of Jordan, not even Crown Prince at the time, was a bit of a Trekkie and got to do a walk-on role on Voyager. Not being a member of the Screen Actors' Guild he couldn't do a speaking part. He is today King Abdullah II, but military careerist that he is, he wore the Star Fleet Uniform well.

If the Hashemite throne somehow survives the present upheavals, this may have something to do with it. Husni Mubarak appearing in a Harry Potter movie might have saved his job. [Later thought: Unless he was Voldemort.]

Friday, May 6, 2011

Muslim Brotherhood Wants to Field a Football Team

With news like that, it's hardly surprising Egyptian bloggers are having a field day. But the Brotherhood apparently did say they'd like to field a soccer team competitively.

I will avoid the obvious cheerleader jokes.

Tired of Bin Ladin? How About Some Classical Arabic Etymology?

 You know I occasionally like to skew widely from the general conversation. I was checking Lameen Souag's wonderful Jabal al-Lughat linguistics blog, which I've linked to from time to time, and stumbled on this post on "An Atom's Weight of Philology," essentially about the changing meanings of words as holy books come down to us from antiquity. He laments, as do we all, the lack of a real etymological dictionary for Arabic, which, for all its richness and enormous lexicons has no equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary, and he notes very much in passing,
Standard Arabic has no layer of prestige loanwords corresponding to Greek and Latin words in English - all the classics of the Arab world are themselves in Arabic, and great efforts have been expended to keep the grammar of Standard Arabic roughly constant since the pre-Islamic era.
Now Dr. Souag is a linguist with skills in Semitic, Afro-Asiatic, and other African languages that I cannot rival, and his statement is absolutely and unassailably true. But the annoying-guy-at-the-bar quibbler in me wants to make one point. Though Arabic in its classical form has nothing like the kinds of Classical loan words that most other languages have, it does have a handful (as I'm sure Lameen Souag knows very well). And one of them is very prominent.

To Muslims, of course, the Qur'an is the direct dictation of God through the Angel Jabril (Gabriel), and is the infallible and eternal revelation of God's own word, in the Arabic language. Even non-Arabs feel that translation of the Qur'an is commentary, not God's direct words, and that they should try to learn to read the original language, which is the direct word. (And even non-Muslim Arabs are sometimes captivated by the sonorous beauty of the Qur'an's Arabic.) Yet, with perhaps the exception of the most extreme Salafis, most commentators on the Qur'an recognize that, even at the time of Muhammad, Arabic had already acquired some loan words from other languages.

One of these occurs in a Qur'anic text recited, quite literally, millions of times daily. The first chapter of the Qur'an, Surat al-Fatiha, the "Opening," stands apart. The early Suras of the Qur'an are extremely long; the shortest are towards the end. But the Fatiha is short, a concise and elegant introduction to the whole:

al-Fâtiha - The Opening

1.  In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
2.  Praise be to God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the world;
3.  Most Gracious, Most Merciful;
4.  Master of the Day of Judgment.
5.  Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.
6.  Show us the straight way,
7.  The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace,
     those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.

                                     -  translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali

 It is the most commonly repeated prayer in Islam and, arguably, the most repeated prayer on earth. Not only is it used in the five-times-daily prayers of all Muslims, but also as an introduction to everything from television programs on religion to the signing of contracts.

Yet a word that is not purely Arabic, and is in fact likely Latin in its origin, appears twice in even this most Arabic of texts. The word is al-Sirat (الصِّرَاطَ), translated above as "the straight way."

If you look at any of the classical Arabic qamus or lexicon literature, you'll find that there are basically only two meanings for this word: "the straight path," as used here  in the Fatiha, and a reputed bridge passing over the fires of hell which the righteous walk on their way to salvation, which, it need hardly be said, is obviously derived from the former meaning of a straight path.. It has no elaborate Arabic cognates derived from the same root, and thus, even without other evidence, looks like a loan-word.

For a very long time it has generally been recognized that the source is almost certainly the Latin strata for paved roads, and that the paved Roman roads of the ancient world made a huge impression on those on the peripheries of empire. And not just the Arabs: compare the English street and the German Strasse, both also derived from strata. All roads may have once led to Rome; many words for road come from Rome as well.

Here's a supporting link. It's from a work by a onetime professor of mine, Irfan Shahid, who may know more about pre-Islamic Arab-Byzantine relations than anyone who's lived since the seventh century. I wish I could afford his books, which are published for a very selective scholarly community. It is not at all impossible that I first learned of this link from Professor Shahid.

This blog will return to the 21st century shortly.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

There Was a Dog in the Story

All that was missing from the Bin Laden drama was a heroic dog. If we are to believe that bastion of respectable newspaper journalism, Britain's Sun (I know, I know), there was indeed a dog involved, a dog trained with the SEALs.

UPDATE: a somewhat more dependable source, The New York Times, mentions the dog, but didn't headline it. (They don't have a Page Three Girl, either.)  And Rebecca Frankel has a long essay on War Dogs at Foreign Policy. My dachshund is proud tonight.

Meanwhile, Back in Syria

While the world has been talking about Usama bin Ladin, Syria has continued its systematic crackdown, moving against various cities sequentially. Though they claim the Army is withdrawing from Deraa, protesters say they're still there; Baniyas and Homs have been subject to army operations as well. Al Jazeera's live blog is a good way to catch up if you've been focused on other issues.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Dubai: The Law East of the Pecos

Dubai is going to speed up its bogged down justice system. Apparently by implementing new courts that can dispose of cases in a single day. These new drumhead courts kangaroo hanging judge more efficiently administered courts  are to deal only with minor offenses but can really clear up that backlog. Key quote:
Fast-track justice is coming to Dubai with a new court that aims to deal with minor crimes in a single day.
The court in Deira Al Muraqabat police station will hear its first cases next week. It will sit four times a week and expects to handle up to 1,000 cases a month, taking the strain off a justice system currently buckling under the weight of almost 50,000 criminal cases a year.
"This will simplify the judicial process for members of the public and speed it up," said Dr Ahmed bin Hazim, Dubai Courts Director General.
The Dubai Criminal Courts Chief Justice, Ahmed Saif, said the new court would handle cases of petty crime such as bad cheques, illegal alcohol consumption, consensual sex and verbal and physical assault.
"The whole process may be completed in a day," he said. "All the required entities are present at the police station, from the crime registration to the public prosecutor to the judge and even to the penalty execution section."

Sounds good to me. Crime Registration, check. Pubic Prosecutor, check. Judge, check. Penalty execution, check. "All the required entities" are present.

Counsel for the defense? Doesn't seem to be mentioned. Oh, yeah, it's "fast track."

Separated at Birth? Curious Coincidence if True: Mubarak and Tura Prison Born on Exact Same Day?

Following up on my note about Mubarak's birthday today: According to the Egyptian opposition newspaper Al-Shorouq, May 4, 1928 was not only the date of Husni Mubarak's birth, but also the date that Tura (Tora) prison was opened. (Link is in Arabic.) Tura has been the most notorious of political prisons under Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, and where many Mubarak cronies, and even his two sons, have been held in recent days. It's a notorious place among Egyptians.

If this is true it's an amazing coincidence, synchronicity and all that, and I'm amazed I hadn't heard this before: his most infamous prison was opened the same day he was born?  It's being repeated on the Internet, but I haven't found any independent confirmation. The account in the link of how it was founded when Wafdist Mustafa Nahhas was Interior Minister sounds circumstantial enough, though; really curious if true. (And it's on the Internet, so it must be true, right?) Anybody want to provide documentation, or are we witnessing the birth of an urban legend? Or did no one ever notice this before? Or is it disinformation?


Happy Birthday Husni: I'm Guessing the Parties Will Be Subdued

Husni Mubarak's 83rd birthday is today, May 4. I'm guessing he won't be partying hearty, though some of his supporters are urging that the detention order be lifted.

In an alternate universe — the one we lived in last year, I'd be writing the usual think piece about whether he'd run for a sixth term or run Gamal instead.

Instead, just a few days ago, the Egyptian Metro announced that the big Mubarak station, a Metro hub near the Ramses train station, was being renamed Martyrs' Station. Happy Birthday, Mr. ex-President.

Why There's Not Much Left of That Lost Helicopter

A sidenote to the Bin Laden op: via Aviation Week, one reason the damaged helicopter was pretty thoroughly destroyed before the team left is that it was apparently a highly secret stealth version of the Blackhawk: an Av Week blog reports:

Well, now we know why all of us had trouble ID'ing the helicopter that crashed, or was brought down, in the Osama raid.
It was a secretly developed stealth helicopter, probably a highly modified version of an H-60 Blackhawk. Photos published in the Daily Mail and on the Secret Projects board show that the helicopter's tail features stealth-configured shapes on the boom and tip fairings, swept stabilizers and a "dishpan" cover over a non-standard five-or-six-blade tail rotor. It has a silver-loaded infra-red suppression finish similar to that seen on some V-22s.
No wonder the team tried to destroy it. The photos show that they did a thorough job - except for the end of the tailboom, which ended up outside the compound wall. (It almost looks as if the helo's tail hit the wall on landing.)
This could have something to do with the fact that Pakistani air defenses didn't apparently detect the operation.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Those Prison Escapes in Egypt

Back in January, as word spread that there had been a mass prison break in Egypt, there was much speculation that the regime was releasing prisoners in order to spread chaos and lead to a backlash against the demonstrators. Al-Masry al-Youm has done an investigative report that suggests that what in fact happened in the case of Al-Marg Prison was that bedouins from Sinai, who smuggle arms into Gaza and have good relations with Hamas, led the prison break to free Hamas and Hizbullah prisoners. It includes interviews with people who were in the escape, and is now on their English website. An interesting read and a sign of growing press inquisitiveness in Egypt.

Al-Qa‘ida After Bin Laden

What happens now to the central leadership of Al-Qa‘ida, with Bin Laden gone? A lot of people are offering opinions: Foreign Policy has a round table discussion by many hands here; a useful piece in The Guardian here; there will be many more. I'll urge you to read those analyses, and throw in my own two cents here.

Even though Usama bin Laden had probably not been engaged in day-to-day operational leadership for some time, he was a potent symbol. Ayman al-Zawahiri is not. He's an ideologist and intellectual of the movement, but not a fighter. He lacks charisma. He also suffers from the fact that, as an Egyptian, he is said to not be fully trusted by some of the Gulf Arabs in the movement. He may be challenged by other, younger leaders.

Bin Laden was a showman, and in that role he may be irreplaceable. It wouldn't surprise me if the various regional Al-Qa‘ida franchises simply went their own ways, and Central became more and more irrelevant.

New MEI Policy Brief

MEI has a new Policy Brief out: The Constitutional Monarchy Option in Morocco and Bahrain, by Stephen Juan King.

Full text PDF here.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Time Revives a Perennial Cover Theme

Time Magazine has seen better days. The specific role Henry Luce had in mind when he founded the weekly newsmagazine back in 1923 has been superseded by 24/7 television and of course the Internet. Those of us old enough however, remember when being on the cover of Time was the pinnacle of fame (or infamy) in any given week, and the Man of the Year was a huge honor (or opprobrium: both Hitler and Khomeini made it).

Time, which has been struggling to find a role in a changed media environment, has announced a special issue on the death of Bin Laden, with the cover above right.It's a theme they've used before. I recognized it immediately because I have an old copy of Time from 1945 in my parents' scrapbook of World War II.

They first seem to have used it for Hitler.
May 7, 1945

August 20, 1945

The Japan V-J day issue is the only one in which the "X" is black, to contrast presumably with the red rising sun.

More recently, they've revived the theme a couple of times, using it for Saddam Hussein and Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi (below).

ABC news tonight said they'd only used it three times before, but they've used it four. Maybe because Japan was not a person it wasn't counted. In any event, they've returned to an old theme.

All covers copyright Time  and accessible here.

June 19, 2006
April 21, 2003

Lynch on Bin Laden

Marc Lynch has some useful comments on Usama bin Laden's end.

Revealed: Is This How Bin Laden Escaped Detection in a Major Town Full of Military Camps?

So Usama bin Laden was hiding in a large compound in the midst of a major town which includes military camps and, near the Bin Laden hideout, a major military academy. Many will no doubt say that the Pakistani Army has got some 'splainin' to do, but there may be a more innocent explanation, as Monty Python demonstrates:

Bin Laden: The Celebrity Terrorist

So much is going to be written about Usama bin Laden today and all week that I plan to restrain myself: my firar impressions last night, plus this post, may be most of what I have to say.

Everyone, at least everyone who would read this blog, knew what Bin Laden looked like. Before 9/11 he gave interviews to Al Jazeera, to CNN's Peter Bergen, and to others; after 9/11 he had to rely on videotapes or, eventually, audiotapes, but he was still a familiar face. He was a celebrity terrorist.

Contrast this with the earlier generation of international terrorists. Carlos (llyich Ramirez Sanchez) was a faceless figure, with only one old passport photo on the wanted posters. (Until he was captured and tried, of course.) Abu Nidal (Sabri Khalil al-Banna) was similarly known only from old, blurry photos from his pre-underground days. The same was formerly  true of‘Imad Mughniyya, though since his death Hizbullah has canonized him and his face has become familiar.

But Bin Laden has long been familiar. So is his stand-in and presumed next in line, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The only previous example that even cames close would be Che Guevara, but he was a government official and guerrilla leader, rather than an underground terrorist. (And while there are many pictures of Guevara, everyone under 50 reading this immediately thought of only one, the iconic portrait most remember him by.)

In the end, the spontaneous celebrations last night at the White House and at Ground Zero would have been less likely had he been an anonymous figure. He made himself the face of Al-Qa‘ida. Though he probably has had little operational role lately, he made himself a familiar symbol, and so gave the US a symbolic target.

From Twitter and the Internet: An Emerging Theme

From Twitter, a little smug and triumphalist, but so true that I wish he'd actually said this:

Also this is making the rounds: