A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

As We Wait for Results, Several Takes on Egypt's Vote

Even when we have the official results (tomorrow night) of Egypt's round one, phase one, we won't be able to draw conclusions since large numbers of the individual constituencies will need runoffs. But a number of people are already offering their thoughts:

In Early Counts,Brotherhood Taking a Strong Lead

 In returns announced so far, the Muslim Brotherhood appears to be doing extremely well in the Egyptian Parliamentary elections, though official results will not be announced until Thursday night. Given its organization and preparation, that is not really a surprise. The Salafist Nour Party also seems to be drawing well,however, which is more unexpected. There are going to be a great many runoffs, and as we keep mentioning only nine governorates voted, so it is far to early, in my opinion, tostart the what-it-all-means sort of analysis. After 60 years of utterly predictable "elections," it's interesting to watch one that may have some surprises in store.

Justice Delayed: Samira Ibrahim's Day in Court Postponed

Samira Ibrahim's case against the Egyptian military before Egypt's State Council, which was expected to be heard yesterday, has been postponed until December 27.

If you don't recognize the name of Samira Ibrahim, it's because this young Egyptian woman has not gotten that much press, outside of the human rights community, in either the Western or Egyptian media. Both of these institutions have been far more concerned with reporting on Aliaa ElMahdy, the so-called "Nude Blogger," who posted full-frontal naked pictures of herself. Samira Ibrahim wears hijab and apparently has Islamist political leanings, and is thus not as newsworthy. (I myself haven't named Samira before, apparently.) Except that while Aliaa ElMahdy deliberately chose her highly public profile and notoriety, Samira Ibrahim made a courageous choice to protest what was inflicted on her. Of the numerous (at least seven, possibly dozens) of  young women who were arrested in Tahrir in March and subjected by the military to so-called "virginity tests," in which they were subjected to physical examination "to see if they were virgins," prodded naked with male military personnel looking on, Samira was the only one willing to pursue justice in the courts. Leaving aside the obvious objection that the question of their virginity had no bearing on any judicial case, the public violation of these women, in the presence of male soldiers and others, is an outrage. When an unidentified general told the media that "these girls are not like your daughters or mine," suggesting promiscuity in the Tahrir encampment, he just made the insult greater. Yet only Samira, who wears hijab, is fighting back.

More on the postponement of her case here; and a detailed (and thus rather graphic) account of what was done to these women, compiled by Human Rights Watch, here.

But Samira is quite capable of telling her own story, as she does here. Some of her opinions (as on Israel, for one thing) may not evoke your sympathy, but the rest of her story should evoke both sympathy and anger. Arabic (colloquial Egyptian) with English subtitles. (I think I've embedded this so the English subtitles will come up automatically; if they don't, click on the "CC" closed-captioning button on the lower right which should show up if you move your mouse down there.)

Yet another account of Samira's story is here. The postponement of her case is possibly a sign the authorities are either waiting to see which way the electoral winds are blowing, or perhaps just procedural, but it raises concerns about a further delay in justice. Samira, of course, was not the only victim; just the only one to face down the system and demand justice.

Though Samira Ibrahim, hijab-wearing Muslim victim of invasive and abusive "virginity tests," and Aliaa ElMahdy, the "Nude Blogger" and self-proclaimed atheist, would seem to be polar opposites, at least one Cairo graffiti artist has managed to link them together:

For all their differences, both these very different Egyptian women are gutsy enough to put a lot on the line, though unlike Mona ElTahawy, whose gutsy publication of the details of her own beating and sexual abuse I praised recently, they don't have a US passport to fall back on.  But Samira may be the gutsiest of all, since she's taking on SCAF and calling what the Army did to her before the courts.

Back in 1923, when Hoda Sha‘arawi stepped off the train in Cairo after a women's conference in Europe and did so without wearing her veil, she started a movement. I'm sure Hoda Sha‘arawi could not have envisioned Aliaa ElMahdy (though an Islamist might say it's a slippery slope from no veil to no clothes at all), but I'm quite sure she would have applauded Samira Ibrahim's fight. Though the hijab would surprise her. Hoda Sha‘arawi has a major street in downtown Cairo named for her. Will Samira Ibrahim? Or even, in some (quite) distant future, Aliaa ElMahdy?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Egypt: A Few Early Thoughts After Round One

The two-day Egyptian first round of the first phase of elections has ended.Until the votes are counted it will be hard to draw any conclusions, except the obvious one that things were (largely) peaceful.  Given the large number of parties and candidates, many races will no doubt go to runoff as well. And only a third of the governorates have even voted, so we're a long way from knowing who's leading. A few observations, however:
  • By all accounts women turned out in very large numbers, even in traditionally conservative areas like Asyut in Upper Egypt, but nationwide. Asyut is a stronghold of radical Islamists, but also has a large Coptic population. Does a large turnout of women work against the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis? Maybe.
  • Copts are also said to have turned out in large numbers. That could also be a reaction to the Brotherhood, though turnout was high across the board.
  • Parties are already complaining and crying foul about alleged violations, and I'm sure there were irregularities, but no one is claiming the large-scale, systematic ballot-box stuffing that used to go on. At least not yet.
  • Turnout was huge with long lines on day one; on day two some precincts were nearly empty; everyone voted on the first day, even if it meant standing in line for hours. Some are speculating that they were afraid there wouldn't actually be a second day. Old suspicions die hard.
Now comes the counting.

Podcasts of MEI Annual Conference

Lest I forget: All the podcasts from the MEI Annual Conference are now accessible here, for those who couldn't attend, or want to hear it again.

Morocco's Benkirane Named Prime Minister

As expected, Morocco's King has named Abdelilah Benkirane Prime Minister in the wake of the elections, in which the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) won 107 of the 395 seats in Parliament. The old nationalist party, the Istiqlal, which had headed the last government, ran second with 60 seats. Full results by party are here.

Under reforms passed this year, the Prime Minister will be the leader of the largest party in Parliament. While the PJD may test the limits of the system, the King retains control over all matters relating to defense, national security, and religion,  which is the main reason I and other observers have not spent as much time on the Moroccan elections as on Tunisia's and Egypt's.

Your Tax Dollars at Work

Customs workers at the Port of Suez discovered they were expected to clear seven tons of tear gas arriving from the United States, and were questioned when they refused. they also have documents showing that it is the first of three shipments totaling 21 tons arriving from the US. More on the story here. CS gas, which in the US is supposed to be limited  to military use, has been extensively used against the demonstrators in Tahrir. Some reports say even more restricted types of gas have been used as well, possibly CR, which is labeled a "combat class chemical weapon."

The US is not the only seller, though the "Made in USA" canisters have been much photographed. China has also supplied, and many of the canisters contain no country of manufacture, so the demonstrators have set up  a website, Tear Gas Identification, displaying various canisters and asking readers to help in identifying sources. I don't think all of these are actually gas canisters, but if you worry about who's supplying the authorities in this case and can help in identification, you might want to take a look.


Monday, November 28, 2011

So Far, So Good

Huge turnouts, long lines, extended hours for voting. So far Egypt's elections have had the usual glitches (ballots arriving late or running short, etc.) but no major violence reported. Despite the tensions in Tahrir, today seems to be a success. So far, so good.

Egypt's Election Day (Well, the First Day of the First Round of the First Phase): Some Things to Keep in Mind

Despite the ongoing tensions, Egypt votes today. More power to them.

Above, a Google banner tribute for the Egyptian vote, at Google Egypt. (Link may change after today.)

Well, that's imprecise. Not all Egyptians vote today, nor will anything be settled today. Today is actually the first of two days of voting for the first round of the first phase of voting for the lower house; the first phase is only for nine of Egypt's 27 Governorates (Muhafazat, provinces). (At the time of the fall of Mubarak there were 29; two new ones created under Mubarak, 6 October and Helwan, have since been abolished and re-absorbed into Giza and Cairo respectively, from which they had been carved out.)  In fact, Egyptians are going to be voting for somebody somewhere pretty much continually from here to next March, so don't plan to stay up tonight waiting for the results. Apparently the authorities figured if Egyptians want real elections, let's stretch it out as long as possible.

Here's the short form which I'm taking from this Arabic site by the Higher Elections Commission:
28-29 November: First round of first phase for People's Assembly (Lower House): Governorates of  Cairo, Fayyum, Luxor, Port Said, Damietta, Alexandria, Kafr al-Sheikh, Asyut, and Red Sea.
5-6 December: Second Round: runoffs for First Phase governorates where a runoff is required.
14-15 December: First round of People's Assembly vote for the second group of Governorates: Giza, Bani Suef, Menufiyya, Sharqiyya, Ismailiyya, Suez, Buhaira, Sohag, and Aswan.
21-22 December: Second round runoffs for the Phase two Governorates.
3-4 January 2012:  First round of People's Assembly voting for the third phase group of Governorates: Minya, Qalyubiyya, Gharbiyya, Daqahliyya, North Sinai, South Sinai, Wadi al-Jadid, Matruh, Qena.
10-11 January: Second Round runoff for the above.
13 January: Final date to announce results for the People's Assembly.
Last half of January: First session of the People's Assembly
29-30 January: First round for first phase Governorates (same grouping as for lower house) for the Shura Council (Upper House).
5-6 February: Runoffs for the above.
14-15 February: First round, second phase Governorates Shura Council
21-22 February: Runoff round, second phase Governorates.
4-5 March: First round, third phase Governorates, Shura Council.
11-12 March: Runoffs for the above.
14 March: Last day to announce Shura Council results.
24 March: First session of Shura Council.

So what we learn today and tomorrow will give us some clues, but it won't give us all the answers. The divisions are not even geographical: Upper Egypt, the Delta, and the outlier Governorates are divided among the three phases.

Non-Egypt-hands may look at the phase one Governorates and say, but, both Cairo and Alexandria are voting today and tomorrow? Don't they encompass the bulk of the population? But what is voting today is Cairo Governorate. What we think of today as Greater Cairo spans three Governorates: Cairo, Giza, and, increasingly as Cairo's industrial suburbs and worker's housing creeps northward into the Delta, Qalyubiyya. Cairo votes today and tomorrow; Giza in round two; Qalyubiyya in round three. (Until 6 October and Helwan were merged back into Giza and Cairo earlier this year, Greater Cairo comprised five Governorates. I hope that, unlike my own voting precinct in Northern Virginia, the polling places aren't in local school cafeterias. If they are, the kids are going to need to bring lunch a lot of days this winter.

Seriously though, may all go well, and may violence not disrupt this timeline.                                                          

Election day! (First One Anyway): Some Readings

Election day in Egypt at last! Details in the next post, but here's a Reader's Digest of useful commentary, blogging, and thinktanking. Not at all comprehensive (that's Google's job) but things I thought worth linking to:
The logo along the bottom of the ad shows the silhouette of a mosque, church, skyscraper, pyramids, the Zamalek tower, and sailboats—with an army tank nestled comfortably in the middle.  Had I been consulted on the logo, I would have advised against having the tank’s gun turret aimed directly at the church.
Michele fairly recently left Carnegie in DC for the Atlantic Council, as head of their new Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Their EgyptSource page looks like the new go-to during the elections. I feel that when she left Carnegie she sort of took Egypt with her (though Nathan Brown is still in there on legal and constitutional issues), especially since Carnegie's Beirut operation lost Amr Hamzawy (at least for the duration of the elections) to Egyptian politics.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

South Arabian Languages and Mehri: Lameen Souag Posts YouTube Videos

Lameen Souag, the Algerian linguist at the Jabal al-Lughat blog, posts fairly rarely these days since he finished his doctorate at SOAS, got married, etc. And when he does, he often posts on African languages of the Sahara and Sahel. But when he posts on Arabic or Berber, he's usually worth referencing or outright pirating. His latest deals with the little-known but fascinating surviving languages of South Arabia. In Yemen (and Oman, where Jon Peterson did a piece on these minority languages for MEJ some years back [link coming soon]), several remnant languages descended from Old South Arabian and (if my understanding is correct) more closely related to Amharic and other Ethiopian languages than Arabic, still linger, though of course much influenced by Arabic. He cites two interesting YouTube videos, though these will only be useful if you already know Arabic. He notes both an attempt on YouTube to record all the dialects of Arabic and separate languages of Yemen:

and another which introduces some basics of the most widely spoken of the surviving South Arabian languages, Mehri, to Arabic speakers.

PJD Has Largest Number of Seats in Moroccan Parliament

The Party of Justice and Development (PJD in its French acronym) has won 80 of the 395 seats in the Moroccan Parliament, according to preliminary results. Though well below the margin of Al-Nahda's plurality in Tunisia, under Morocco's new reforms it will give the PJD the right to lead the government, though obviously in coalition. PJD leader Abdelilah Benkirane will presumably be Prime Minister. I'll have more as information firms up. Egypt's first round starts Monday. Note that the PJD has been a major player for some time, and this is not a huge surprise.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

On the Beating and Sexual Abuse of Mona ElTahawy

I was going to post this yesterday but my original version was too angry and profane. I'm going to try to do this more calmly. The subject is still adult and some of the Twitter posts in screen caps need a language warning.

We all know, sadly, that in the midst of Egypt's revolutionary fervor, there has also been a horrific pattern of abuse of women. The horrors of the "virginity tests" "conducted" on women protesters in the Egyptian Museum last spring remain the most notorious case, since these "virginity tests" are usually known by rather cruder names involving the word "finger," and were inflicted by members of the Egyptian Armed Forces. When the hue and cry were in full cry over Aliaa ElMahdy's nude photos recently, one commenter noted on Twitter:

Egyptian feminists have done much to publicize the prevalence of sexual harassment in the Egyptian street (83% of Egyptian women say they've experienced it), and the sexual assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan on the night Husni Mubarak was toppled (though conducted by thugs in the street, not under official auspices), drew much Western attention, though of course Egyptian women did not find it that unusual. In this week's troubles two Western female reporters have claimed sexual assaults while reporting in Egypt; French reporter Caroline Sinz was attacked by a mob of young people and sexually molested; and the well-known Egyptian-American columnist, feminist and author on women's issues Mona ElTahawy was arrested and abused by Central Security Forces troops inside the Interior Ministry. Since Mona ElTahawy is both a dual citizen and has an international audience, this is creating lots of bad (and fully deserved) press for Egyptian authorities. It's hard to imagine someone they could have beaten and sexually abused who could do them more harm: A Muslim Egyptian feminist journalist with an international audience. And they deserve every bit of opprobrium they get, not just for what was done to Mona ElTahawy, a high-profile person with a US Passport, but to the victims of the "virginity tests" whose voices we will never hear and who are told by their society that they should blame themselves. She came out of it with a broken hand and a broken arm, and she's telling the world about it:

The abuse was inflicted by young members of the Central Security Forces. Eventually the Ministry of the Interior transferred her to Military Intelligence, where she has made clear there was no abuse, just hours of interrogation. She was held for some 12 hours, with her injuries untreated.

I suspect it's no longer "journalism" that should be called the "first draft of history," Twitter is. Her description gives a real-time sense of the nightmare, though this is not for the timid. Mona tweeted her own arrest and beating before losing her phone:

After her release she described what happened with obvious anger. Strong language warning here, though clearly justified, even mild, under the circumstances.

And finally, after the fact (language warning again):

I, for one, am looking forward to it. I think they finally [messed] [okay, fucked] with the wrong Egyptian woman.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving, Ras al-Sana al-Hijriyya

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and a four-day holiday. I won't be blogging regularly but given the pace of events may check in on major topics. Saturday or Sunday (depending on the country) will be the first of Muharram, Ras al-Sana al-Hijriyya, the Muslim New Year 1433. Happy Thanksgiving to American readers; Happy New Year to Muslim readers.

Salih Signs

Yemeni President Salih has finally signed the GCC transition agreement. This after a great many false starts of course. It calls for him to step down in 30 days in favor of his Vice President. Will he actually do so? His track record does not encourage optimism, but perhaps he will, in which case he would be the fourth Arab head of state to lose his job this year. All four in happier days:

UPDATE: Apparently he is going to New York for further treatment of the injuries sustained in the earlier assassination attempt, so he may not return to Yemen during the transitional period.

If Elections Occur, How to Understand the Electoral System

Damned if I know. I have a Ph.D. and know Arabic and first went to Egypt nearly 40 years ago and I can't figure it out. The utterly corrupt and fraudulent old electoral system was easier to understand, though also befuddling, but at least you knew what the final step was: "Step 67: Government makes up its desired results. Publishes them." Now, nobody understands it.

Since at least as of Tantawi's speech yesterday the elections are still officially on, I thought I'd offer a guide to interpreting the votes. Please read this and then explain it to me, will you?

Democracy is hard, but it doesn't have to be this hard. This graphic, posted by The Daily News Egypt, tries to explain how it works:

Click image to go to full-size PDF of chart
Clicking should bring up a detailed PDF.  the original PDF is available here.

Okay, I'm glad we cleared that up. Still confused? Get used to it. Even the constituency boundaries for the two types of elections aren't congruent, so each ballot is somewhat unpredictable. Confuse and rule? Maybe. There are two separate systems: a party list system and an individual candidate system. Parties will dominate. The geographic frames also differ. I can see how some people may be puzzled about who represents them. It's a Rube Goldberg system. The American Electoral College is easier to figure out. (Why are they doing it this way? To deliberately obfuscate and confuse, or through general incompetence? I'm wavering but don't rule out the possibility of both together.)

Some useful readings, since I can't figure it out:
If no one understands the rules, how can you tell if the election is fair? This cumbersome system implies, if not more, that nobody wants you to be sure.

Did the Brotherhood Just Bet the Wrong Horse?

For such a well-organized, and, in the eyes of its rivals anyway, amazingly Machiavellian organization, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has bet on the wrong horse several times this year, and while each time it has recovered, it does keep seeming to miss opportunities.  It stood aside on January 25, when the Revolution launched, and played little if any role on January 28, when the state cracked down. Certainly it joined the revolutionary side after that, but many have thought it a bit too cozy with SCAF. Yesterday, again, it stood down, saying it hoped to avoid further violence, but the revolution turned out in the greatest numbers since January, or at least July, and SCAF made at least token concessions. Has the Brotherhood missed the bus?

Given their strength and grass-roots orientation, and the fact that they will rise or fall on the will of the country at large, not the rebels in Tahrir, it would be foolish to say so. Issandr El Amrani thinks they have suffered a setback, and I'm frankly hoping he's right though it's not my choice, but Egypt's, to make.
I think Issandr has it right:
But their leadership has failed them once more. Once again the Muslim Brotherhood has shown that its basic essence has not changed: just as its leader in 2009 said he had no problems with a Gamal Mubarak presidency and had much respect for Hosni Mubarak, just as they rushed ton negotiate with president-apparent Omar Suleiman in late January, just like they preferred to cut a deal with the military in the transition's early days and accepted a slapdash referendum and constitutional declaration, the Brothers are once again swimming against the prevailing tide of the Egyptian people. They prefer to negotiate for their own maximum advantage rather take a principled position.
I often think the Brothers' biggest problem is not that they are fundamentalist, or out of touch with the Egyptian mainstream, or too radical. It's that they are perceived, rightly, as schemers by average people. It's true of their leaders, at least, and it's what has made so many bright young people leave them in recent years and so many others doubt their intentions.

Of course, things are moving quickly. Perhaps when the end game finally comes the MB will have had it right all along. But they made at least a tactical error.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Meanwhile, in Quiet Tunisia, Something Unheard of Takes Place

Even as Egypt is still struggling to find its way, in Tunisia., the constituent assembly has met, and has affirmed the previous inter-party agreement that chose Al-Nahda's Hamadi Jebali as Prime Minister, CPR leader Moncef Marzouki as President, and Ettakatol's Mustapha ben Jaafar as President (Speaker) of Parliament. Maya Jribi of the opposition People's Democratic Party will be Vice President of Parliament.

So, we now have a sitting assembly, tasked with writing a constitution but also constituting the government until that task is complete, elected in free, competitive elections with internaatinal observers, elections won by an Islamist party but which will govern in coalition; a government in which the President, Prime Minister,and Speaker are from three different parties. Much can still go wrong, but that this much has already been accomplished is impressive.

See, Egypt, that's how it's done.

OK, who's next?

Déjà Vu All Over Again: Tantawi Makes Some Concessions, Talks Unity

There's a definite sense of déjà vu (or as Yogi Berra supposedly said, of " déjà vu all over again") in what little I've seen so far of Field Marshal Tantawi's speech a short time ago:: a clear memory of Husni Mubarak's successive speeches last January and February, or of Ben Ali's in Tunisia: a lot of talk about patriotism and unity and the economy, some concessions, some promises for the future, but at the end the situation hasn't changed all that much.

Clearly, reports from the scene and tweets from the crowd indicate that Tantawi won over few in Tahrir Square, among those who could hear the speech above police gunfire. The question is whether he won over people outside Tahrir, the "silent majority" he presumably sought to address with talk of stability, econnomic growth, etc.

The major concession visible so far is the decision to hold Presidential elections by the end of June 2012. That comes close to meeting one of the protesters demands (most were asking for April).In accepting the Cabinets resignation he opens up the possibility of naming a much-sought-after national salvation government, but if in fact SCAF keeps all the power, a new Cabinet will be as toothless as the old one. And he did say something to the effect that if the people voted in a referendum to ask SCAF to go back to the barracks, they would do so "immediately," but did not in fact call such a referendum. The almost unanimous demands of political parties, professional syndicates, and the crowds in Tahrir are not enough, however: at least not yet.

The gamble is the decision to go ahead and hold the Parliamentary elections starting Monday. Many of the political parties want to go ahead; many of the younger revolutionaries do not. The likelihood of violence is obvious; a cumbersome electoral system (more on that in another post soon) that no one understands further obfuscates the situation.

SCAF may have bought some time or it may not have; the anger of the past several days has been provoked by the excessive violence used by police, Central Security Forces, and the Army. If that doesn't stop, I fear the battles will go on.

And having seen at least parts of the speech in online videos, I think we can confirm that the Field Marshal has not suddenly developed a charismatic personality since we last heard from him. Here it is in Arabic; if I can find a version with English subtitles or voice-over, I'll put it up.

National Salvation Government?

There are reports out of Egypt saying SCAF has accepted the Cabinet's resignation and is going to announce a National Salvation Government and Presidential elections by next July. But SCAF is hard to read and anything could really be going on. Rather than try to post fragments, I'll offer my take later today after something official is in hand.

Until then, Marc Lynch has some wisdom.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Day Three: Close to the Breaking Point

The third day of pitched battles in Egypt has seen considerable escalation. Despite official claims live ammunition is not being used, the Ministry of Health (which probably undercounts) admits to 38 dead for the three days. The demonstrations are no longer limited to Cairo and Alexandria, but have spread to some 14 cities.  SCAF has not commented on whether it will accept the Cabinet resignations, but there are reports that the Ministry of the Interior is being run  by the military now. A big demonstration has been called for tomorrow to demand a national unity government  and an early handover of power. SCAF is supposedly talking to some political parties, but whether they actually make concessions or crack down harder depends in large part about whether their motives have been driven by incompetence or by cynical power manipulation. I feel (and I fear) the coming days will be as tense as the 18 days of the revolution, but what the results may be are really hard to predict. The moment of decision is fast approaching, but as it has been from the beginning, SCAF's real intentions are inscrutable.

Two Words You Didn't Expect to See Together: Angelina Jolie and Gertrude Bell

I came across this over the weekend and originally planned to use it as something light to start the week with on Monday morning, until the bloodshed in Egypt made that singularly inappropriate. To lighten all the gloom, however:

When I first saw the headline, "Angelina Jolie Attached to Middle East Biopic GERTRUDE BELL; Ridley Scott May Direct", I thought, oh, surely not. On careful reading I read it as maybe Jolie just wanted to direct a movie about Gertrude Bell; but on more careful reading, I find that no, indeed, my first reading was accurate, she wants to play Gertrude Bell herself. (Also here.) All the articles seem to refer to Bell as "the female Lawrence of Arabia," which may be how they sold the script. I'm not sure if that's more unfair to Lawrence or to Bell, who were both rather amazing figures of the British imperial era. Bell, of course, was the figure in the British Arab Bureau during World War I who helped midwife the birth of Iraq as a British mandate and then managed to, um, arrange the "election" of Feisal ibn al-Hussein of Mecca as King of Iraq, since the French had kicked him out as King of Syria and his brother ‘Abdullah had already become Emir (and later King) of Transjordan. Bell deserves a great movie of her own; I hope it is as widely seen and as brilliantly done as the 1962 Lawrence of Arabia, but sticks closer to the actual facts. Will it?

Well, Peter O'Toole was nearly a foot taller than the real T.E. Lawrence, but otherwise there was some physical resemblance. Perhaps this is what led to the idea of casting Angelina as Gertrude: the fact that they look so much alike? Yeah, that must have been it:
Angelina Jolie
Gertrude Bell
My first thought was that if she is in fact planning to play Gertrude Bell, this would rank right up there with John Wayne being cast as Genghiz Khan, in 1956'  The Conqueror, a movie so famously bad it isn't available on DVD even today, and is famous only for so many of its actors dying from cancer (including the Duke), since it was filmed at a Utah site downwind from the Nevada nuclear tests, then still frequent and above ground. Even Howard Hughes, who made it, supposedly hated it.
Genghiz Khan
(No Doubt Exactly
What He Looked Like)

John Wayne as Genghiz Khan

My biggest fear: Wait, says Hollywood. She was "The Female Lawrence of Arabia?" as our own publicity says? "She knew Lawrence of Arabia? She worked with him? If we've got Angelina on board,why not go for the whole "Brangelina" enchilada and sign Brad Pitt to play T. E. Lawrence?  But then there should be some romantic interaction and maybe a sex scene ..." (No. NO ONE would buy into that.)

Gertrude Bell deserves a major movie. She's a bit too much of an Empire-builder and manipulator for modern times perhaps, but she did things no other woman did in her era, or could have done. She invented Iraq. Created its Government, and chose its King. Imperialism at its height, but she accomplished at least as much as Lawrence, but lacked his skills at writing and networking.

I can tell you that I will be closely following the production of any movie about Gertrude Bell, and look forward to reviewing it here. Angelina Jolie can act, and might do a great job,but there will have to be a lot of deglamorizing by the makeup department.

And she certainly deserves better than this, which if released today would probably start a war with Mongolia:

Egyptian Cabinet Resigns

The resignation of Egypt's civilian Cabinet — not yet accepted by the Military Council — is unlikely to end the growing violence. As I noted earlier today I think the events of the weekend have moved Egypt past a tipping point. The Islamists as well as the liberals are now opposed to SCAF and demanding an early transition. The elections are clearly in question; the whole jerry-rigged electoral system may be scrapped and the transition rethought. We seem to be back in January again.

New MEI Viewpoints on Iran's Regular Military

Another in MEI's Viewpoints publication series has appeared: "The Artesh: Iran's Marginalized Regular Military," wit contributions by 12 specialists.

The link goes to the information page; the full text in PDF can be found here.

Talaat al-Sadat 1947-2011

In this chaotic year for Egypt, another politician with a legacy name has passed away, only weeks agter Khalid Abdel Nasser died. Talaat al-Sadat, nephew of President Anwar Sadat, has died of a heart attack at age 64. A maverick politician who opposed Husni Mubarak and was once prosecuted and jailed for suggesting the Army was behind the Sadat assassination, he somewhat inexplicably became the last head of Mubarak's National Democratic Party after Mubarak's departure and before the party's dissolution. More on him here and here, and Zeinobia's assessment here.

A Tipping Point in Egypt?

In less than ten months we have gone from "The Army and the People are One Hand," to two fists duking it out with each other.

It wasn't long after my Friday wrap-up that Friday's demonstrations in Egypt began to deteriorate into violence, which continued through the weekend. What to make of the deadly events in both Cairo and Alexandria. Up to this point, one could at least argue that the behavior of SCAF could be explained under the old adage (attributed to Napoleon, Mark Twain, and others,  "Never attribute to malice what can that which can be adequately explained by incompetence." Nos, we have passed what may be a tipping point to what some are calling Revolution 2.0. More here and here.

It's utterly dismaying. the videos are grim and the prospects unclear. I'll have much more to say on this as time permits.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Today in Tahrir: Secularists and Islamists Join in Opposing SCAF But Compete with Each Other

Today's big demonstrations in Midan al-Tahrir had one clear thing in common: a demand that the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) back off on its "extra-constitutional principles" and withdraw from power in a timely manner. But the Muslim Brotherhood and other Salafi groups, which now support those demands, clearly also sought to show up in force to show their own strength was greater than that of the secular revolutionaries. They brought out the bigger numbers, but both sides showed the growing dismay with SCAF.

Zeinobia has quite a lot, including much video and stills, so that's a good place to start. Issandr at The Arabist was there as well, and offers some insightful thoughts on the implications; he notes what has to be one of the cleverer signs on display today (reproducing a screen shot as it's html code and Blogger keeps saying it's an error):

For those who don't know, it's HTML (the language underlying the World Wide Web and blogging). Thus the / symbol means "end" or "stop";  you use the command "italic" to start italics, the command "/italic" (but with the brackets not quotes in both cases) to stop italic. So, End SCAF or Stop SCAF. Given the SCAF's extremely clunky handling of all things Internet so far, they might not know what it means.

Also, Bikya Misr offers more here. Meanwhile, Ahram Online sees it as an Islamist show of power, while also live-blogging and offering a gallery of photos here.

Al-Masry Al-Youm also emphasizes the Islamist turnout, but from a different angle: "As Tahrir Returns tot he Spotlight, Suspicions Grow of Islamist Intent."

UPDATED: Also see Marc Lynch's take on today's events at Foreign Policy.

Have a good weekend, all.

Egypt: Amid Protests and on the Eve of Elections, Much Ado About a Naked Artist

Today was a large rally in Tahrir Square, aimed at reversing the so-called "supra-constitutional principles" and protesting SCAF; a week from Monday, Egypt will start its long-awaited elections (more on both to follow); but both events are having to share the headlines with another controversy of national import: a 20-year-old female art student who, to protest the role of women, posted a nude picture of herself on the Internet.

Artists often seek to play a transgressive role, and 20-year-olds tend to be rebellious and sometimes exhibitionistic, and such things tend to be shrugged off in the West as youthful protest that may interfere with future employment prospects, but in Egyptian society today, this really is art as politics, and politics of the most bomb-throwing sort. As this article notes, it has of course provoked the particular outrage of the Islamists, and talk of prosecution under the blasphemy laws (I gather since she has also proclaimed her atheism).  But it is also making the secular liberals uncomfortable, because it goes beyond what they consider proper, and  since they fear the Islamists will use this to tar secularism as a movement supporting nudity, promiscuity, and such. Though the blogpost in question carries an October date, awareness of it has spread only this week.

Among a great many commentators weighing in on the subject, Issandr El Amrani sees it as a useful jolt and a new form of social protest, with reservations:
Seeing things like this is a little bit of a shell-shock, because people are obsessed with the political process and Egypt's flawed transition all this stuff almost seems silly and juvenile in comparison. I love it all the more for it, although I also worry about Alia's safety and society's response. Egypt, to be blunt about it, is a deeply bigoted and narrow-minded place. Some people may even be angry with her for associating secular/liberal values with what many will simply see as debauchery.
I don't want to get into a discussion about cultural sensitivity and all that, but simply note and applaud the sheer brazenness of acts like this: they are so radical in this society they appear as if they are from another dimension. Societies need that kind of jolt every now and then, and it reminds me how the youth bulge in the demographics of Egypt and many Arab countries will inevitably shatter taboos, as the Baby Boomers did in Europe and the US. We should just remember that protestors of May 68 in Paris, as influential as they were, were dwarfed by the demonstrations of support for De Gaulle, and that the generation that gave us hippies in America gave us many more born-again Christians.
Joseph Mayton wrote a similarly positive response at the Bikya Misr website, and notes that he is catching flak for it, from liberals as well as conservatives. Other bloggers have offered commentary as well. Mona ElTahawy's column in The Guardian summarizes one approach: "Egypt's naked blogger is a bomb aimed at the patriarchs in our minds." A google search will find a lot more of this kind of \commentary.

Now, while I agree on the one hand that it is hard to imagine a protest that would provoke more debate about the role of women in Egyptian society, I also recognize that this particular protest, which would go largely unnoticed in Europe, so transgresses the norms of society by injecting a discussion of female sexuality into the political realm as to outrage even many liberals, or as Mayton notes, liberal males. While protesting the oppression of women, by combining her nude picture with her proclaimed atheism she is being as in-your-face as she can possibly be in a society like Egypt's today, where, as she herself has noted, artists are no longer permitted to use naked models.

An art student at the American Univrsity in Cairo who turned 20 just days ago, Aliaa Elmahdy is apparently the girlfriend of blogger/activist Kareem Amer, whom some are blaming, though she has claimed the pictures were taken before she met him.

Aliaa Elmahdy enjoys her 15 minutes of fame for the moment. She is also getting coverage in the Western media and in the Middle Eastern media outside Egypt.  I've deliberately chosen to link primarily to the social commentary up to now, but she has the usual presence on Facebook and on Twitter. both her own account and as a subject for discussion at the hashtag #NudePhotoRevolutionary.  Most of these posts are in Arabic, as are the captions to that notorious web posting itself, which I'll link to not for sensationalism but because it would take only a click or two to find anyway, but with all the usual warnings: contains nudity, not safe for work, etc. etc. (The post includes other nude images besides the blogger herself, but the fact that an Egyptian woman appears is what set off the firestorm.) Despite all the outrage, there are reports  that the site has also received some 1.5 million visitors this week.

Naturally, I wonder if, in five or ten years time, this rebellious act at 20 will seem so well-advised; unfortunately given the current context in Egypt, there is reason to fear not just for her future employment prospects, but for her physical survival. It's easy to say that on the eve of elections Egypt should have more serious things to talk about, but as many of the commentators have noted, the role of women is one of the central issues dividing Egyptians today. And just as the intellectual discussion seminar was getting underway, Aliaa Elmahdy has thrown a bomb into the seminar room.

Update: Now a group has declared January 1 "National Gay Day in Egypt."  I'm sure the revolutionary motivations are real, but the Islamists must be overjoyed.

The 65th Annual MEI Conference

Yesterday's 65th Annual MEI Conference was, I think, a most successful one. Given the events of this astonishing year, I think it did a good job of covering the implications of what more and more of the speakers called the new Arab Awakening, since "Arab Spring" seems a bit anachronistic since it's ongoing and the leaves are falling. Since transcripts, podcasts, and video clips should become available to link to in the coming days, I won't attempt to summarize the many great presentations. And to the several attendees who came up to me and complimented me on the blog, let me reiterate my thanks. And also to express thanks to all of the Institute's, and the Journal's, staff and interns for their hard work on the conference.

I will have some regular posts later today, since the Middle East did not in fact stop while MEI was absorbed in its Annual Conference.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Back Tomorrow

I will be at MEI's Annual Conference all day today. Expect me to be back blogging sometime tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Multiple Stories on Arab Women's Roles Today, From All Along the Spectrum

As I'm still busy clearing my desk for the banquet tonight and the Annual Conference tomorrow, I thought I'd do a lengthy portmanteau list of links to a number of recent stories, from just about every angle imaginable, about the changing and uncertain roles of women in the age of Arab revolution. Barring something that can't be ignored, this may be my last post till Friday, so I've given you a lot to read.

Women have played a major role in the Arab Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt at least, and with the emerging political strength of Islamist parties Arab feminists are trying to make their voices heard. So are female Islamists. When I say these stories range widely, I literally mean they range from a candidate who wears niqab (the full veil covering the whole face) to the first Arabic magazine to run an Arab woman in a bikini on the cover.
  • We'll start with Egyptian politics. The Jerusalem Post recently addressed the question. As they note, one Islamic scholar and self-proclaimed Presidential candidate, Hazem Salah Abu Isma‘il,has been saying he would impose Islamic dress on women and arrest any woman wearing a bikini. Though he has had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, they have distanced themselves from his candidacy.
  • Indefatigable Egyptian blogger Zeinobia recently did her own roundup of women in the Egyptian Parliamentary elections which I'm going to quote for several items; she encouragingly calls her post "#1," so I hope there will be many. She begins with a poster from the Salafi Al-Nour Party shown at left. Now, Al-Nour attracts those Islamists who feel that the Muslim Brotherhood is way too liberal and permissive. As Zeinobia notes, Al-Nour held a conference on women at which all the speakers were men. It's that kind of party. (Not a partying kind of party, in other words.) Though they don't much approve of women in politics and such, the law says party lists have to have a certain minimum number of women candidates. Okay, so Al-Nour has women candidates. According to this political poster, one of them in this district is apparently a rose. (Bottom row, center.) Not only is she last on the list, they published a picture of a rose rather than show her face
  • Shifting towards the more liberal side of the spectrum, the old and historically secularist Wafd Party doesn't put a rose on its poster, it puts the actual candidate (right), but since she's an attractive candidate and also blonde, that has had its own impact. Nihal ‘Ahadi is apparently drawing insulting comment through social media and is being labeled a member of the former ruling party.
  • While, in Egypt, candidate Abu Isma‘il is promising to arrest any woman wearing a bikini,a lot of the Internet is abuzz with the story that, for the first time (I haven't checked this against archives from the pre-Islamist era, so earlier instances may be posted to the comments), an Arabic magazine has put an Arab woman model on their cover wearing a bikini. Admittedly, my link is to that paragon of British journalism, The Times Daily Mail, but it appears elsewhere as well. Now it seems that model Huda Naccache is in fact an Israeli Arab from Haifa, 22, and not only that, has been chosen as Miss Israel for the "Miss Earth" contest. Now I've heard of Miss World and even blogged about the Arab-American who was Miss USA for the Miss Universe contest, who was rather improbably labeled a Hizbullah mole despite her swimsuit pictures. I've never heard of the "Miss Earth" contest. (If there's a Miss Earth as well as a Miss World and a Miss Universe, is there a Miss Solar System?) Lilac is an Arabic magazine published in Israel and circulated in the Palestinian Authority (not Gaza I suspect, at least this issue), and Jordan. Israeli bloggers are treating this from a different angle, arguing that Israel is hardly an "apartheid" state if they chose a Miss Israel who is an Arab. She's an Israeli Arab from Haifa, of course, not from the occupied territories. Purely for educational/anthropological/historical/cultural purposes, as I also did with Miss Universe candidate Rima Fakih, I reproduce as a cultural artifact with no prurient intent whatsoever, the cover of Lilac at left. If you want more pictures, you'll have to click through to the Daily Mail.
What's the moral or lesson of all these anecdotal issues? None I can think of, except that, as the Chinese say, women hold up half the sky. Arab men sometimes underrate that, and old stereotypes die hard. Are ten belly-dancing channels a step forward, or backward? Is Huda Naccache in a bikini a revolutionary or a stereotype, and whichever, how does she relate to the candidate for Parliament in niqab? As the father of a daughter, though not one who will grow up in the Arab world now emerging, I'm not sure, but there are many very different and seemingly incongruous things going on at once here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Concerns About Violence as Egypt's Elections Loom

A number of voices are expressing growing concern about the insecurity and outbursts of sporadic violence as elections near. Clashes over a fertilizer plant in Damietta over the weekend, the killing of a foreigner in an Upper Egyptian family feud, and ongoing strikes and other protests raise concern that the elections, which even under the old regime often saw some violence, could be a problem, with possible implications for the elections and hopes for more Egyptian democracy.

The Arabist expresses his  concern here; Ibrahim Eissa, Editor if Al-Tahrir, expresss related concerns here; and there's an article on election tensions here.

Obviously, with the Army increasingly showing signs it is in no hurry to hand over power, any outburst of violence that could lead to a cancellation of elections or a delay in the transition is of concern. I'll have more to say on this after our Annual Conference is over.


And since I'll be busy, here's another good read: The Moor Next Door offers an extended assessment of Bouteflika as a "gerontocrat," with many video links. Essential reading for anyone interested in the cults of personality that accumulate around aging Arab autocrats.

A Busy Week: Some Links Dumps

Today, tomorrow, and Thursday will be crazy, as today and tomorrow are devoted to clearing my to-do list before tomorrow night's banquet and Thursday's all-day MEI Annual Conference. Many of my posts may be little more than links. For instance this one: Issandr El Amrani and Ursula Lindsey, both of The Arabist, offer an interpretation of the Tunisian elections at MERIP. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

National Geographic Joins in on the Suddenly Trendy Garamantes

This will mark two ancient archaeology posts in a row. (And neither involved Zahi Hawass.)

Despite some alarming signs in Libya lately, such as four days of clashes between militias, now in a ceasefire, the Garamantes, the ancient Libyan culture I posted about a week ago, are in the news yet again, this time with the National Geographic chiming in. They are suddenly downright trendy, or as they might say on Twitter, "trending," and they haven't done that since the Roman Empire. (What's "trendy" in Latin, anyway?*)

Anyway, I'm glad to see the Garamantes having their day. They're apparently "mysterious" despite mentions by Herodotus, Tacitus, Pliny and others, I guess, because  whole lot of reporters just found out about them. If, as Herodotus assures us, their cattle really grazed backwards, perhaps they really were mysterious.

[*Neither my old yellowing Cassell's Latin Dictionary, nor the online version of the old standard Lewis and Short, even offer up a translation of "trend," let alone "trendy."  (Our word is apparently Germanic in origin.) Years ago the Vatican had (and being the Vatican, probably still has somewhere) an agency tasked with coining new Latin words (on Latin roots, not loan words from modern languages), for modern ideas and terminology. Any readers know if they've tackled this burning question yet?]

5,200 Year-Old Take-Out Windows?

And now for something completely different: Did the Early Bronze Age Invent the Drive-Through Carry-Out Window?

That would seem to be the take-away (sorry, couldn't help it!) from "Beer and Bullets to Go: Ancient 'Takeout' Window Discovered."  (No, they haven't discovered bronze age "bullets" in the modern sense: they mean clay pellets for slings.) A tip of the hat to Diana Buja for the link.

Useful Guide to Egyptian Political Parties

 As we finally enter the election cycle in Egypt, Issandr El Amrani at The Arabist has a great link to a guide prepared by one of his readers, Jacopo Carbonari, which he's haring. The guide, with a useful graphic of party orientation and background information on parties and leaders, can be seen in PDF here.

On the whole,it's superior to other attempts I've seen.

MEI's 65th Annual Conference This Week

This is the week of the Middle East Institute's 65th Annual Conference, "Game Changer: Politics and Policy for a New Middle East."  Let me again urge those of you in the Washington area to attend.

While the banquet November 16 with Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns as the keynoter, and the lunch November 17 with Yossi Beilin and Samih al-Abed, do require payment for tickets if you wish to attend, there is no charge for registration for attending the conference panels, which are open to the public (but register soon as space is limited). Check the link above for more, or click the logo.