A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

‘Umar Makram: The "Patron Saint" of Tahrir Square

‘Umar Makram Statue
Over the past year, as Egypt's drama has played out, I have periodically noted some of the deeper historical aspects of some of the scenes of the action. On the day Husni Mubarak resigned, I posted "A Brief Biography of Tahrir Square," and when the religious clash occurred near the Radio-TV building, popularly known as "Maspero," I explained how an innocent antiquarian/archaeologist named Gaston Maspero ended up with his name gaining notoriety.

‘Umar Makram Mosque from Tahrir
In that same vein, I thought I'd introduce another historical note: ‘Umar (or Omar) Makram. We've had occasion a number of times to mention the ‘Umar Makram Mosque, which sits on Tahrir Square and has functioned as both a prayer center and, more than once, a field hospital for the demonstrators. In more peaceful times, the mosque is a popular site for celebrity or prominent funerals (and weddings), given its prominent location on Cairo's main square (which as we have noted before, is round.) In fact, a funeral from ‘Umar Makram is a sign of prestige (a sign the departed has, so to speak, arrived.)

I have used the phrase "patron saint" of Tahrir Square in my title, but ‘Umar Makram is not even buried in the mosque named for him, but in one of the city's vast cemetery complexes. Despite its popularity and prestigious role, given its location, the mosque (left) is not an ancient one: it dates only from 1948.  The statue of ‘Umar Makram looking out at Tahrir Square (above right) is even newer, dating only to 2003.

Egyptians who paid attention in their history classes should know who ‘Umar Makram was, but I suspect most foreigners, even those living in Cairo, probably don't.

‘Umar Makram
Naqib al-Ashraf Sayyid ‘Umar bin Husayn Makram (1750 or 1755-1822) was a leading religious figure of his age, a center of resistance to Napoleon's French invasion in 1798-1800, and a key figure in winning religious support for the recognition of Muhammad ‘Ali as viceroy of Egypt, and thus the establishment of the Muhammad ‘Ali dynasty that ruled Egypt until 1952 (and reigned until 1953). Ultimately like many kingmakers, he fell afoul of the king he had made too well.

I should note that I can't post a lot of links for further reading here; there isn't that much about him on the Internet; even his Arabic Wikipedia page is pretty sparse. There is a longer account with more detail here, however, also in Arabic. So for my account I am forced to find other sources as well, and, since I'm old enough to predate the World Wide Web by a considerable margin, I still have a collection of an older information retrieval system technology, known as books. I'm drawing much of this from Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot's Egypt in the Reign of Muhammad Ali and from various accounts of the French expedition.

‘Umar Makram was born in Asyut in Upper Egypt around 1750 or 1755. He attended Al-Azhar, and was also a descendant of the Prophet. In 1793 he was chosen as Naqib al-Ashraf, a post in Ottaman administrative system that had both religious and civil functions as head of the body of descendants of the Prophet. In effect he shared religious leadership with the Azhari leadership and the heads of the Sufi orders. He was politically active in leading resistance to high taxation even before the French arrived.

When Napoleon's French expedition landed near Alexandria in 1798, Makram helped organize resistance to the French. After the French defeated the Mamluk military forces at Imbaba, Cairo was left undefended except for local militias raised by Makram and the other religious leaders. After Napoleon took Cairo he declined an offer of a position and retreated to Bilbays, leading a resistance in Sharqiyya province. He retreated to Gaza and eventually to Jaffa, where in 1798 the French, during their invasion of Palestine, caught up with him. He was returned to Egypt and sent into internal exile in Damietta.

After Napoleon's return to France, Makram returned to Cairo, and in 1800 led a new uprising against the continuing French occupation.  With the French departure, Makram's prestige as an activist who could mobilize the religious establishment and the street (including organizing boycotts by shopkeepers and other forms of protest) enhanced his influence in the anarchic years that followed the French withdrawal.

The French occupation had severely crippled the power of the Mamluks, and struggles for power among various Mamluks and Ottoman attempts to reassert authority in Egypt led to several years of internal struggle. Makram and the religious ‘ulama'  plaid an activist role. In 1805 he and the other religious leaders to depose the Ottoman viceroy, Khurshid Pasha, and replace him with the Albanian military leader and adventurer Muhammad ‘Ali. Thus he and his allies were instrumental in bringing to power the man who would dominate Egypt for a generation and found the dynasty that would rule onto the mid-20th century.

Muhammad ‘Ali in 1840
For several years, the alliance between Makram and Muhammad ‘Ali held. The religious establishment supported Muhammad ‘Ali's rejection of the Ottoman Sultan's firmans attempting to transfer him out of Egypt, land backed his ongoing struggle with the Mamluks (which would end with the destruction of the Mamluks in 1811). When a British expedition took Alexandria in 1807 (the Ottomans were allied with France in the Napoleonic Wars, so Britain was at war with the Porte from 1807 to 1809), Makram helped organize resistance in Cairo while Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha was fighting a Mamluk insurrection in Upper Egypt.

Meanwhile, the Pasha frequently used Makram and the religious establishment for justification in his efforts to tax and control the Mamluks' iltizam feudal lands. Eventually, though, the alliance frayed, as Muhammad ‘Ali's efforts to centralize power led him to covet the rizqa endowment lands of the religious establishment. Makram's frequently demonstrated ability to organize the Cairo street and mobilize against a political figure. Kings tend to distrust the kingmakers who made them, fearing they might do it again with someone else; Pashas apparently entertained similar suspicions.

In 1809, Makram sought to lead a revolt against this taxation and was stripped of his posts. He had finally met a match he could not outmaneuver, and was retired to internal exile in Damietta and, eventually, to Tanta, where he died in 1822.

Makram's resistance to the French made him a symbol of opposition to foreign occupation, leading to a revival of interest in him during the national struggle against the British. Ironically, the now-iconic mosque on Tahrir Square was erected during the reign of King Farouq, the great-great-grandson of Muhammad ‘Ali.

A New, Bilingual Egyptian Opinion Journal: Midan Masr

A new, bilingual monthly newspaper and online site called Midan Masr has launched; they publish their content in both English and Arabic, and translate articles so that the content is the same in both languages. Their English homepage is here and their Arabic here.

They offer a lengthy statement of purpose stating that they welcome all points of view on matters Egyptian. Excerpts:
Midan Masr’s mission is to be a focal point for this rich, passionate, and heated explosion of voices and opinions. Midan Masr will commit to reflecting the full spectrum of discussion and debate taking place regarding issues that affect Egypt. 

We are a neutral and independent monthly paper that solicits and publishes opinions from a cross-section of political, religious, ideological, and philosophical persuasions that reflect the full spectrum, richness, and complexity of the debate taking place in Egyptian society.   

We strongly encourage and welcome first-time writers, seasoned writers, bloggers, photographers, cartoonists, and ultimately anyone who wishes to express his or her opinion on any of the issues affecting Egypt to submit their contributions in Arabic or English to info@midanmasr.com. The newspaper is available throughout Egypt . . .
While our inaugural site covers a broad range of topics and points of view – we are acutely aware that there are many points of view and ideologies that are not reflected in this issue. This is not for lack of attempting to cover those points of view; rather it is a reflection of the authors that we have been able to reach. We will actively continue to broaden the ideological and geographic diversity of contributors – with a particular focus on Egyptian authors from provinces outside of Cairo.
It looks promising, but I'm glad there's both an Arabic version and a print version, giving it some chance to be read outside just the Cairo intelligentsia.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Crunch Time for US-Egyptian Relations

I can think of few moments since the first Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty when US-Egyptian relations, and the fate of US aid, have seemed so much in question. A high-level military delegation is in the US to discuss aid, led by Maj. Gen. Mohammed El-Assar, the Deputy Defense Minister for US Affairs and a member of SCAF, but he will no doubt have seen this morning's Washington Post report that the US Embassy in Cairo is sheltering in place in the Embassy compound several US employees of NGOs who have been forbidden to leave Egypt due to the crackdown on pro-democracy NGOs. As everyone knows by now, one of these is the International Republican Institute's Sam LaHood,who happens to be the son of US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, a rare Republican in the Obama Cabinet (and an Arab-American as well, to add to the mix). Oh, and just to make General El-Assar's visit even more challenging, over the weekend Egypt's key Washington lobbyists announced they were quitting. Hello, we're here for our annual $1.3 billion in military aid. Really, you're upset about something? Actually, General El-Assar, whom I've met on earlier visits, knows the US scene rather well, and I doubt if he has many illusions about the task before him. Whether his fellow SCAF generals understand the hole they're in (at the moment, though, they're still digging) is a lot less clear.

I know of course that the US aid relationship is unpopular in the Egyptian street, and I also know that some in the Army may feel the aid package is sacrosanct, the Army's "payment" for keeping the peace with Israel. But both the Administration and Congress still have to approve that every year. The Egyptian economy is reeling, the 10-12% of it that is tourism based is in serious doubt, and US military aid is now in jeopardy. And without the US, hopes for IMF and World Bank assistance could also be in jeopardy.

SCAF's out-of-touch, blundering approach to governance has rarely been more apparent. A breach with the US would perhaps be popular, but the Egyptian military's own self-interest would be the first victim. And if they think they can replace it with Gulf funding, they might want to look at the record of Gulf monetary pledges versus actual funds delivered.

Cairo Literary Atlas

Ahram Online notes the appearance of a Cairo Atlas of Literature (Literary Atlas of Cairo might be a moreprecise translation of the Arabic title), celebrating the topography of the city in literary excerpts. Sight unseen, it sounds like a great idea.

UPDATE: A commenter notes an English edition appeared in 2010 and is available from AUC

Collecting Colloquial Emirati

This blog has frequently talked about issues relating to diglossia, and to the importance of learning and studying the spoken colloquial Arabic dialects, not merely formal literary Arabic, which is a learned language everywhere. This article in Abu Dhabi's The National, "Emirati Slang Revived with iPhone App," fits in that category. Though the article refers to "slang," many Arabs, when speaking in English, use that term for the local vernaculars, and the context suggests that is what is what is intended here, though slang, of course, is embraced with the colloquials.

What also struck me, though, was the implication that if this effort were not being made, the spoken vernacular of the pre-oil Emirates would be lost. That struck me as odd since for more than 30 years I've had a 686-page hardcover dictionary of the colloquial dialect of the Emirates sitting on my shelf. This is Mu‘jam al-alfaz al-‘ammiyya fi Dawlat al-Imarat al-‘Arabiyya al-Mutahhida (Dictionary of Colloquial Expressions of the UAE; معجم الألفاظ العامية في دولة الإمارة العربية المتحدة).

I was confident how long I'd had it because I got it at the very first, founding summit of the GCC back in 1981, when the Gulf States, faced with the then still new Iran-Iraq war, first set up their organization. It was published by the Cultural Department of the UAE Ministry of Education and Culture, written by Falih Hanzal and edited by Ghassan al-Hasan, and while the cover page has no date of publication, the Editor's forward is dated 1978, which fits with my date of acquisition in 1981.

Since the book is pretty substantial I had almost persuaded myself I might have a rare book, since The National article made no mention of it. Searching for references to it, I quickly discovered this is not the case: in fact the complete text is available online.

For anyone with an interest in colloquial Arabic, especially in the Gulf, that's useful to know.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Divide and Rule in Tahrir

Today's Cairo demonstrations, multiple marches to Tahrir all aimed at protesting military rule, have apparently included both renewed instances of sexual harassment and assault, which has become all too common in Egypt, and clashes between the young revolutionaries and the Muslim Brotherhood. So far I have mostly bits and pieces from Twitter and may have the wrong impression, but if the theme of the afternoon was tension between the young revolutionaries and the Islamists, then it's a good day for SCAF. My personal sentiments lie closer to those of the revolutionaries, but the elections demonstrated that the MB represent a broad and real sector of Egyptian public opinion. "The people" who are demanding the fall of military rule are the same people who elected the Brotherhood with 47% of the seats in Parliament. Polarization between the demonstrators and the Brotherhood, unfortunately, simply entrenches the Army: in fact, it adds to the impression, which the Army loves to foster, that the Army is the only guarantee of order.

If the revolutionaries and the Islamists go to war with each other before the Islamists have actually done anything objectionable, the revolutionaries ensure their own defeat. That doesn't mean the Brotherhood wins; it means the Army wins. The revolutionaries, to be sure, believe the MB are allied with the Army. The MB may think so too. I suspect the Army sees things rather differently: its is playing its foes against each other. If that the case then the verdict for today has to be: Advantage: Army.

Via Hossam Bahgat

The National on Arabic E-Books

The National looks at the emerging market for e-books in Arabic.

Some Realism on Israel and Iran

 I've known Barry Rubin for many years, though we don't agree that often; but when he's right, he's right: "Israel Is Not About to Attack Iran and Neither  Will the United States.

At least, I hope he's right.

Three Years of Blogging

Today marks the third anniversary of my very first post on this blog, January 27, 2009. That was acltually a placeholding "coming soon" announcement, and the first substantive post was the next day, January 28, a post on Hisham Melhem's coup of becoming the first Arab journalist to interview the newly-inaugurated Barack Obama.

In those three years there have been over 2600 posts. In the near future we'll be migrating the blog to a new home in the Middle East Institute's new website, but nothing else substantive will change. Thanks to all my readers for the past three years!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

One of Those "Sleeping" Legislators is Blind

I was one of many to post a picture of the Egyptian Parliament's first day which appeared to show two of the Salafi MPs sleeping. As Marc Lynch points out in "The Sleeping Salafi," the fellow at the lower right, Dr. Wageeh al-Sheemy, is actually blind, which explains the closed eyes. He is in fact the first blind member elected to the Egyptian Parliament. My apologies to Dr. Al-Sheemy, and congratulations to his constituents for electing him to Parliament despite a disability.

The fellow two rows back, however, is pretty clearly in dreamland:

Who's in SCAF Anyway?

Yesterday's demonstrations in Tahrir Square, as has become customary, included many calls for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to step down. Readers of this blog will be familiar with SCAF's total lack of transparency, and its tendency to speak collectively, except on the still-rare occasions when Field Marshal Tantawi himself makes a public address. Sometimes SCAF seems to contradict itself. At one point in December it issued three communiques in a row (I think an unprecedented frequency); the first was hardline, the second conciliatory, the third hardline again — in three days. Is its counsel divided? Who knows, since no one knows how it takes decisions?

But there's another issue lurking here that only rarely gets addressed. There is considerable confusion about its exact membership. It consists of the General Staff, the Defense Minister and his Deputy Ministers, the Commanders of the Military Districts, and at least some Deputy Commanders and Assistant Ministers, but the exact tally is a bit vague. Oh, there are lists, even official lists, but they don't always agree, not only on the exact names, but on the whole number of members.

Wikipedia, for example, says there are 20 members, citing as its source a State Information Service site which, however, as recently as December, said there were 18. (Archived copy: the SIS site is being updated.) One enterprising website has surveyed the various lists, comparing names, and has come up with lists ranging generally between 15 and 20. but with a total of 22 distinct names. Most lists tend towards either 18 or 20 names, but initially only 15 were published.

What's going on here? Is the membership a state secret? If so, why did the State Information Service publish a list? And why doesn't that list agree with other lists? Has membership increased over the past year?

Some of this may come from confusing reports that cite any senior general who speaks publicly as  a a member of SCAF, often incorrectly. In December there were two flaps when a retired general named Abdel Moneim Kato made two successive controversial statements, in the first of which he said the protesters deserved to be "burned in Hitler's ovens" and in the second, he claimed that "international law" gave the Army the right to use live ammunition to fire on civilians. (Since SCAF has always denied live ammunition was used, it promptly distanced itself from Kato.), But a great many overseas reports, and one or two Egyptian ones, quoted KATO as a "member of SCAF," though he is a retired officer in the Morale (!!) Department, and all the members of SCAF are active duty. His proper title seems to have been an "Adviser to SCAF," and such confusion may account for at least some of the uncertainty about which officers are actual members.

Obviously it is the Field Marshal and the top brass who, presumably, are calling the shots in SCAF, but the fact that nearly a year after "Communique Number One," the precise names and even precise number of the members of Egypt's executive authority is still a little gray around the edges is indicative of the remarkably opaque methods of SCAF.

Ayatollah Jannati Jokes

 Just to lighten things a bit, a RFE/RL piece about the popularity of Iranian jokes about Ayatollah Jannati's age.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

As Others See it Today

I've already posted some of my own reflections on today's anniversary, but others have many interesting perspectives to offer as well. This is just a selection of some of the English-language commentary, and only includes those not behind paywalls; even so, I may have more links and more comments of my own later.
  • Sarah Carr, "Revolutions."  (Posted a few days ago, but her reflections on the anniversary.)

Sorry, Full: Tahrir Today

Turnout in Tahrir Square for the first anniversary has been huge and, so far (it's evening now), peaceful. The various competing narratives about the day do not appear to have produced any major clashes.

Not only has Tahrir itself been full to capacity, but the second photo shows the crowd on Qasr al-Nil bridge leading to it.

"Bliss Was it in That Dawn ...": From Revolutionary Enthusiasm to ... What?

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!--Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
                                                                            Wordsworth on the French Revolution

Wordsworth captures the enthusiasm of the initial revolutionary fervor of the French Revolution, even among some Englishmen. But that Revolution evolved into the Terror and the guillotine, the Directory and Bonaparte. On the first anniversary of the Egyptian uprising, many of the revolutionaries are disillusioned (though not all), and many Westerners who initially applauded Arab spring are disturbed and apprehensive by an elective Egyptian Parliament in which the Muslim Brotherhood and the even more conservative Salafi Al-Nour Party hold 70% of the seats. The Army and the Islamists have declared today to be a day of celebration of the Revolution (as if it is something that occurred, and is completed); the young revolutionaries have declared it a day of protest, to fulfill and complete an unfinished revolution. We'll see how the day turns out.

Certainly democracy is messy, and the elections, though they went fairly predictably, did not produce the sort of revolutionary change the young idealists dreamt of. Many in the West see the results as dismal: bad for the US, bad for Israel, and yearn for the certitudes of the Mubarak years.

Later today I'll be doing a roundup of opinion pieces on the revolution's anniversary, but I think a responsible historical view would be that a revolutionary movement is a process, and we cannot control its direction; on the other hand, an elected Parliament is something new, and provides a counterpoint to the military council; this will be a year of bartering and maneuver over a new constitution, and a new President. Meanwhile the young revolutionaries are still there, and the masses of ordinary Egyptians, though perhaps most interested in stability, will also hold the new government to account, as they ultimately, after 30 years, did the old one. If the Islamist fail to make life better, they may find their majority in trouble. To those who fear they will seize power and hold it, that this election will have been, "one man, one vote, one time," I would say that 1) there is no evidence of that, and 2) I think that underestimates just how much Egypt changed a year ago. Once people know they can bring about revolutionary change, they will have the option of doing it again if the new system fails.

I am not totally complacent about Egypt's prospects, but I'm not going to view with alarm until we have some kind of evidence that the worst scenarios are transpiring The West didn't make this revolution, and it's not ours to shape. Tahiyya Misr.

January 25, 2011: One Year Ago Today

Everybody in Egypt loves January 25 now. SCAF, the revolutionaries, even the Islamists who sat it out the first time. It's the likeliest date to be celebrated as a new national day, regardless of whose narrative of the revolution comes out on top. One year ago today, I started the day's posting with the following:

Today is Egyptian Police Day, anniversary of a great nationalist moment in 1952 when the police attacked the British, but today too often a moment to glorify centralized authority. Here's my post from last year, but this year this is going to be a day of rage Tunisian style, if the protesters have their way. Let's see what happens.
By later that day I was starting to notice that something, indeed, was going on:
Based on video reports, Facebook, Twitter, etc. the demonstrators seem to have succeeded in makiNG their presence felt, and have occupied Tahrir Square (the central one downtown, shown above at dusk today) and are planning an all-night sit-in. Big turnouts were reported from Alexandria as well.
Note that back then I felt obliged to explain what Tahrir Square was.
Extensive presence of Central Security Forces means the government was able to control and channel the demonstrations to some extent, but they don't seem to have deterred them as has often happened in the past. Perhaps Tunisia really has given people a new determination. By all reports the demonstrators were peaceful and didn't loot or attack private vehicles. The police were not as gentle. This does seem to have been one of the most successful and impressive turnouts for a demonstration; too often in the past groups mustered tens of thousands of supporters on Facebook, but only a few dozen would show up in the street. This seems different.

The real question is whether everything returns to normal tomorrow. The difference in Tunisia was the crowds kept growing and people got angrier and angrier. But the Egyptian government has always allowed an opposition press as an outlet for releasing pressure; Tunisia was far more absolutist in its control. So I'd be surprised to see a replication of the Tunisian results in Egypt. Of course, I was surprised to see them in Tunis, too.
 By the violent upheavals of January 28, three days later, we all were realizing something had changed.

I will certainly have more reflections as the day goes on, but wanted to begin with a reminder of how it looked, from a distance, a year ago.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

SCAF to Lift Emergency Tomorrow . . . Mostly

Field Marshal Tantawi has announced that Egypt's SCAF will lift the State of Emergency tomorrow on the first anniversary of the outbreak of protests that brought down Husni Mubarak. Or rather, will mostly lift it. It will still apply in cases of "thuggery" (حالات جرائم البلطجة). What does that mean? Unfortunately, I fear the answer is "whatever we want it to mean," but given the fact that one of the first demands of the demonstrators was lifting the Emergency and that after the Revolution SCAF actually expanded its scope, any lifting of it is presumably a good thing. It's the latest step in a struggle between the Army and the Islamists on the one hand and the revolutionary movement on the other on who gets to define the January 25 anniversary; the Army wants to brand any protests tomorrow as counter-revolutionary, since it claims it will be celebrating the revolution. (Re: "thuggery," on the word baltagiyya, see here.)

The Emergency has allowed arbitrary arrests and detentions, trial of civilians in military courts, and many other abuses targeted by the protesters. What's more, it has been in place, with one brief interlude, for nearly 45 years. Originally imposed in 1967 after the War with Israel, it was lifted for a bit over a year in 1980 by Anwar Sadat after the peace with Israel, though no great outburst of liberal reform took place. When Sadat was assassinated in October 1981, it was reimposed and has been in effect ever since; it's more or less been a permanent "Emergency." In 2010 Mubarak relaxed it, claiming to limit it to cases of narcotics and terrorism only, but last year SCAF broadened it again. The "thuggery" exception almost certainly means SCAF will still be able to arrest demonstrators more or less arbitrarily, but I'm willing to be pleasantly surprised to learn otherwise.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Who Says Islamists Aren't Like Other Legislators?

To be fair, the last I heard the opening session of Egypt's Parliament was at nine and a half hours and still droning on, and  posters on Twitter were joking it was sponsored by Red Bull, but maybe not:

Sheikh Saud al-Nasser Al Sabah, Former Ambassador to US, Dies

Sheikh Saud al-Nasser Al-Sabah, who served as Kuwait's Ambassador to Washington during the 1980s and through the Iraqi invasion and occupation, and later as Information Minister and Oil Minister, has died at age 68, reportedly of cancer. Sheikh Saud al-Nasser was a well-known figure in Washington in those difficult days for Kuwait, now over two decades ago. I mention his passing mainly for those who, like me, remember those days, and Sheikh Saud's role in them, well.

Is a New Explosion Coming in Bahrain?

I haven't talked about Bahrain lately, since the tensions there have remained persistent but somewhat under most people's radar. Yet over the past few weeks tensions have continued to rise, and February 14 will mark the anniversary of the outbreak of the protests. Since the regime narrative is also to blame everything on Iran, the overall escalation of tensions across the Gulf may also add to the pressures. But February (and March, the anniversary of the Saudi/GCC intervention) could be tense.

For All its Flaws, a Landmark Parliament Convenes Today

The new Egyptian People's Assembly will convene today on procedural business, only two days before the first anniversary of the date that has come to mark the onset of the Revolution. The January 25 revolution may be turning out quite differently than the young revolutionaries envisioned, with the Muslim Brotherhood in first place (which is not so surprising) and the Salafis in second (which surprised many, not least the Brotherhood itself). SCAF is still calling the shots, and the new Parliament's powers are far from clearly defined. And yet, this is a landmark parliament.

It has been six decades since the military coup of 1952 toppled the monarchy in Egypt, elections have been constrained by the overwhelming dominance of the ruling party. Until the Sadat era there were no opposition parties at all; since the 1970s opposition parties have existed, but only those approved by a committee dominated by the ruling party. While there were occasional moments of liberalization (the 1980s for example), when the opposition won a fair number of seats, they never held enough to block a constitutional amendment, which meant the ruling party could change the rules at will, and frequently did, rejigging the electoral system, limiting who could run, etc. The vote counts were generally rigged as well, but even if they weren't the system was so weighted toward the ruling party they would have won anyway.

There were voting irregularities and imperfections this time as well, but they do not seem to have systematically favored one party. These elections were the most open, free and fair since the 1952 coup, and this Parliament will be something new and different. (Before 1952 women could not vote and there were other inequities such as the ability of large landowners to control the votes of local farmers, and the Parliament was limited — as this one may be by SCAF — by the power of the Palace and the British.) It may not be the Parliament I would have elected, but I'm not Egyptian, and whatever else it may be, it is a Parliament elected by Egyptians. Ex Africa semper aliquid novum.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Some Useful Reads

A few useful reads. I'm working on longer posts of my own but here are some items of note from the past few days.
  •  Kenneth Pollack at The New Republic asks "Are We Heading for War with Iran?" Of the dozens of articles out there on both sides of the argument, this one caught my attention because Ken was a major supporter of the war in Iraq, before the fact, but he's clearly not on board on this one.

The Problem of Modern Archives in Egypt

Hussein Omar, in a guest post at Arabic Literature (in English) addresses the question of "Who Should Save Egypt's Archives?" It's not, as you might guess, another piece about the Institut d'Egypte fire, but about the question of preserving the archives of Egypt;s modern literature and history, which aren't well served by the existing National Archives and Dar al-Kutub. A useful read for students of literature and modern history.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ambassador Patterson Meets the General Guide

Photo from ikhwanweb.com
For the first time, a US Ambassador has met officially with the General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson met with General Guide Muhammad Badie.

In fact, Badie has already met with Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, so the meeting is not that surprising. He has also met recently with Senator John Kerry and former President Jimmy Carter.

Lincoln Battle Group Joins Vinson Near the Gulf as Threats and Brinksmanship Continue

I already reminded readers a couple of weeks ago of the sort of tragedy that brinksmanship in the Strait of Hormuz can lead to. But with Parliamentary elections due March 2 in Iran and the US in the midst of a Presidential campaign, and the Israeli government (though decidedly not the Israeli military and intelligence communities) talking tougher and tougher, the situation is increasingly one of those that could spin out of control beyond the control of either side, a powder keg waiting for a stray spark.

When the John Stennis carrier group left the Gulf at the end of the year after conducting the last combat aviation missions over Iraq, Iran warned the US against sending another carrier. That was, of course, a non-starter; the Carl Vinson, though apparently it is still outside the Straits, quickly replaced the Stennis. Now it has been announced that the Abraham Lincoln is also moving to the Gulf Area of Operations.

Iranian Frigate Sahand Burning, 1988 (Wikimedia Commons)
During the Iraq War, the US usually kept two carriers in the area, but the dispatch of the second carrier is a potent reminder that the Iranian threats (made but then backed off from) to close the Strait, but it does raise the level of tension though, frankly, it seems a measured response to an overt threat. Just as I previously hoped the US would bear in mind the lessons of Iran Air flight 655 in 1988, I would also hope the cooler heads in Iran will keep in mind the results of the US Operation Praying Mantis the same year,

In that action, in response to a US frigate striking a mine, the US struck two Iranian oil platforms, sank an Iranian frigate and several smaller craft and damaged a second frigate. It is said to have been the US Navy's biggest surface engagement since World War II, and the first time US Naval surface units used ship-to-ship missiles in combat. The US is no paper tiger, and while Iran has a Navy much rebuilt and armed with modern missiles since 1988, the Vinson and  Lincoln battle groups can defend themselves, too. That just adds to the powder keg, though, and while I personally doubt that Iran really wants a shootout with the US Navy, or that the US Administration is as eager as some in the commentariat to light the spark. I just hope everyone remembers that playing with fire around a gas pump can be risky.

Where's Waldo?

See if you can spot the woman in the new Moroccan Cabinet:

Yes, she's really in there. Second row, far right, behind all the suits.

Juan Cole on "God's Way of Teaching Americans Geography"

Citing Ambrose Bierce's quip that "War is God's way of teaching Americans geography," Juan Cole notes that a majority of Americans, despite the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the confrontation with Iran, still can't locate those countries on a map:

And he has a modest proposal:
I suggest a new regulation on war. If a majority of your country cannot find the enemy country on the map, they aren’t interested enough to justify making war against it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Yet Another Minority, the Shabak, are Targeted in Iraq

The latest car bombing in Iraq,in a displaced persons camp in a town near Mosul, has apparently targeted the minority Shabak community, killing at least 11.

While the violence in Iraq most often is sectarian between Sunni and Shi‘a, it is also frequently directed against non-Muslim minority populations. The frequent attacks on Iraqi Christians, mostly Assyrians and Chaldeans, are well known  and have led to a growing flight of Christians to Assyrian and Chaldean diasporas in the West. There have also been attacks against the Mandaean and Yazidi religious minorities.

The Shabak are another one of Iraq's minor religious/ethnic minorities, with some similarities to and affinities with the larger Yazidi community, who live in the same general region. (Note: the link is to the Wikipedia article and Wikipedia is dark today in a protest action. You can access the link by turning off Javascript in your browser, or can wait until tomorrow if you don't know how.)

They are, like the Yazidis, a syncretistic religion with elements of Islam, Christianity, and older faiths. They speak a form of Kurdish, but their scripture is written in Turkmen.

These tiny, relic communities may seem like anachronistic curiosities, but they are a reminder of the palimpsest of migrations, conquests, and faiths that swept over the Fertile Crescent over the millennia. And they have few defenders. At least international Christian groups regularly protest attacks on Iraqi Christians, though with little result since the attackers are radical Islamists. Even the Mandaeans and the Yazidis have some support from diaspora populations in Europe. Most people have never heard of the Shabak. Nor do I expect this to be on the evening news. That's why I brought it up.

New MEI Website is Live

 MEI's newly revamped website is now live; please check it out. It's the same address so your bookmarks should still work. It may be a little harder to find the link to my blog, but the old page was too cluttered: it's down under "Middle East Journal." Or just bookmark the blog, too.

Revolutionary Rhetoric Enters Young People's Flirting Jargon

Al-Arabiya English has an amusing post about how the rhetoric of the revolution in Egypt has entered the banter of the young, especially when flirting, including "The People demand your phone number," and "The People demand a date with you," It's perfectly in keeping with the Egyptian sense of humor, but it's also something I hadn't seen mentioned before.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Arab MK Ahmed Tibi's Voting Suspended After Lampoon, Bilingual Double Entendre

Ahmed Tibi, an Arab Israeli member of the Israeli Knesset, had his privileges suspended for a day for a poem he recited on the floor of the Knesset. He was lampooning a member from the rightwing Yisrael Beitenu  Party who had spilled water on another member. Ha'aretz provides an English translation of Tibi's rather forced poem, which he recited in Hebrew. The objection is that, after considerable and labored effort, he manages to conclude with the Hebrew words "a glass of madness," Kos Amok. As anyone who knows Arabic knows, that sounds almost identical to the most obscene (and arguably the most common) Arabic insult, involving one's mother's anatomy. Since the Arabic obscenity is also well-known (and often used) in Israeli Hebrew, the double entendre stirred up a fuss. Someday I may work up the courage to discuss the remarkably versatile vocabulary of cursing and obscenity in Arabic, but for now I will merely point out what this otherwise perhaps opaque controversy is really all about. Tibi reading his poem in Hebrew follows (remember, those last two words are Hebrew, not Arabic, which would be offensive.)

FJP Now Says No Tourism Restrictions by Coming Egyptian Parliament

Photo From Bikya Masr
Though I posted a (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) treatment of the Islamism-and-tourism debate in Egypt over a month ago, the whole question (often shortened to "booze and bikinis") has continued to preoccupy both the international media and the Egyptian as well.

With it now clear that the Freedom and Justice Party (the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing) will have the Speakership of the new People's Assembly, and with word that tourism was down by a third for the year, a number the tourist industry says is actually too optimistic because it includes 500,000 Libyan "tourists" who were fleeing the civil war in their country,  it's hardly surprising that the Freedom and Justice Party has tried to ease concerns that Islamists will torpedo the tourist sector, responsible for more than a tenth of the Egyptian GDP.

FJP  members are saying that the incoming Parliament will make no changes that could affect tourism in the next five years (one noting that 60% of the Party's members  in Red Sea Governorate work in the tourist sector).

The Brotherhood and the FJP have so far been putting their moderate face forward. Many doubt that that is their long-term intent, but any statements undermining the tourist economy would likely be met by pressure from the Military Council, which has still not made clear just how much power the new Parliament will exercise. Continuing instability, of course, is as likely to impede tourism even more effectively than future bans on alcohol and bikinis.

"Cultural Collapse in Egypt"

An interesting note by blogger Diana Buja on "Cultural Collapse in Egypt," referring to the disappearance of distinctive dress styles, and bread and cheese traditions, in the various parts of the country, over the past few decades. Though Diana has long been working in East Africa, she spent a lot of time doing fieldwork in Egypt in the 1970s and 1980s (she's an old friend from those days whom I haven't seen in years, but we cite each other's blogs periodically). It's a short piece but an interesting one.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

It'll be a Cold Day in Egypt for me to Post on Saturday . . .

. . .  Alexandria had snow.

Friday, January 13, 2012

For a Three-Day Weekend: Nasser on the Brotherhood and, for Comparison, Tantawi

For the three-day Martin Luther King holiday weekend, I thought I'd share these clips from a speech by Gamal Abdel Nasser in which he tells of meeting the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1953 (the speech is sometime later), and making fun of the idea of women wearing the hijab or not being allowed to work. I'm sorry that neither of these has English subtitles' if anyone knows of a subtitled version let me know.

Even those who don't know Arabic might find it worth listening a few minutes anyway to Nasser's style. Yes, he was a dictator who installed a brutal national security state that still lingers. But if you have ever wondered why he was so popular in Egypt snd all over the Arab world, watch him work the crowd. He uses sarcastic humor, jokes with the audience, and sounds like he's really speaking extemporaneously. It skewers the Brotherhood much more effectively than the fearmongering of the Mubarak era.

Those who can understand it, watch the Nasser clips. Then watch as much as you can (I dare you to hold on for long) of Field Marshal Tantawi's nstionally televised "The Mummy Speaks" address in November. Do you detect a difference in effectiveness in speechmaking?

Happy New Year 2962 to Any Amazigh Readers!

We talk a lot about "Arab Spring" or the "Arab Awakening," but not all those who have awakened are Arab. In both Libya and Tunisia, Amazigh (so-called "Berber")  populations have made their feelings known, and have won support from their brethren in Morocco and Algeria, where they constitute a larger proportion of the population. Especially in Libya, where Qadhafi forced the Amazigh to take Arab names and famously claimed the Tamazight languages are just "dialects of Arabic," the Amazigh heartland in the Jebel Nefusa became a major center of resistance. A glance back at my earlier posts on Berbers, Imazighen, and the Tamazight languages tags, will trace many of the events of the past year, with links to Amazigh videos, websites, etc.

Amazigh Flag
Many Amazigh nationalists or those seeking to reclaim a distinct identity in their own nations have taken to marking the "Amazigh New Year." Because the Islamic calendar is purely lunar and dates move around the year, agricultural societies need a solar calendar as well, to determine times to plant and harvest; in the Levant the old Semitic month names are used; in Egypt, the names of the Coptic months, and in North Africa, the names are derived from the Roman names, and the older Julian calendar is still used. Tomorrow is the first of January (Yennayer) in the Amazigh and North African agricultural calendars.

Shoshenq I (Wikipedia)
As for the era, with tomorrow as the first day of 2962, this stems from what historian Eric Hobsbawm called the invention of tradition,, a modern innovation which purports to be, and ultimately comes to be  seen as, ancient. In the 1960s, the Academie Berbere in Paris introduced a "Berber era" dating from 950 BC, the approximate date when the Pharaoh Shoshenq I (or Sheshonq I) ascended the throne of Egypt. Shoshenq was of Libyan origin, so they identified him as the first identifiable Berber in history. (They also promoted the use of Tifinagh script, which has gained some traction with Berber activists.) While not an actual historical era in the usual sense, it's a symbol of awakening Amazigh idenity.

The Amazigh are major contributors to the history and culture of North Africa, though the Arab nationalist regimes that have been in charge have underplayed their role. Algerian blogger Lameen Souag has a recent post about his hometown of Dellys, and his first anecdote (but read the whole post) depends on a bilingual pun: whereas aman means "safety" in Arabic it means "water" in Berber, and the local custom was to sprinkle water on newlyweds. But it only works if one knows both languages. North Africa is inextricably a product of Arab and Amazigh both, and to any Imazighen who may be reading this, a happy 2962 or whatever date you want.

Did Israeli Agents Support Jundallah by Claiming to be US Agents?

Mark Perry has a sensational (if true) story at Foreign Policy called "False Flag," asserting that according to US intelligence sources, Israeli agents met with Jundallah, the Sunni opposition movement inside Iran that has been accused of bombings and assassinations against Iranian targets, and that the Israelis posed as American agents in a false flag operation. Iran regularly accuses the US of supporting Jundallah; the story, if true, may have leaked because of unhappiness in the US intelligence community over the Israeli operation.

I don't know Perry's source, and stories like this always need to be approached cautiously, but I thought it worth noting.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Can This Possibly Be Real? Apparent Syrian Pro-Asad Propaganda Video Uses Darth Vader Theme

This is making the blogosphere rounds and I have to admit I don't know if it's legit. It's supposedly a Syrian state propaganda video. With clips of Nasser, Hafiz al-Asad, and Bashar all talking about Syria. It all looks like typical state propaganda. But (even if you don't understand the Arabic), listen to the background music, which gets louder at the end. That "patriotic" march is, yes indeed, the Darth Vader/Emperor march theme from Star Wars. Either this is a monumental case of somebody choosing the wrong music, or else it's a subtle satire. Either way (but especially if the former) it's funny. Or maybe Bashar sees himself as Emperor Palpatine. (There's a Hafiz al-Asad "Bashar: I am your father!" joke I could make as well.)

I suppose the Horst Wessel Lied would be worse in one sense, but hardly anyone today would recognize it.

It Must Have Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

Juan Cole has posted a wonderful 1970s ad touting how wise the Shah of Iran is for investing in nuclear power. Of course, that was when Iran was one of our twin pillars of stability.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

50 Years From Operation Damocles to Tehran: Why Israel is Suspected

When yet another Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated in Tehran today, Iran blamed the US, the UK (Iranians do that for old times' sake), and Israel. Secretary Clinton was quick to deny that the US had any knowledge or involvement, and blaming the Brits is a legacy reflex in Iran. I think most people, though, assume this was an Israeli operation. (Not to mention that they're pretty coy in their non-denials.)

Willy Messerschmitt's Helwan Fighter
That's not just because Middle Easterners, Arabs and Iranians in particular, reflexively blame Israel for everything, including in recent memory shark attacks in the Red Sea and a spy vulture in Saudi Arabia. Nor is it just because Israel's policy of "targeted killings" is well-established when it comes to clear enemies like the Hamas and Hizbullah leaderships. It's because attacking scientists working on military programs has a long history in Israeli secret operations, one that will mark its 50th anniversary this year: from German scientists working on an Egyptian rocket project in the 1960s, through Iraqi nuclear scientists in the 1980s, to the wave of Iranian nuclear scientists today, there seems to be a clear pattern.

Operation Damocles, 1962-63

The first of those, in 1962-63, was exposed when the Swiss arrested a Mossad agent involved; that led to a quarrel between David Ben-Gurion and the legendary (now: his identity was a state secret then) first head of Shin Bet and from 1951 also head of Mossad, Isser Harel, and Harel's resignation. The attacks on the German scientists, reportedly called Operation Damocles, was in response to Egyptian President Nasser's efforts to acquire a missile and aircraft industry using ex-Nazi scientists. (Horrors. It's as if we had hired Wernher von Braun to run our space program. Oh, wait.) Nasser made a lot of belligerent boasts that his missiles would be able to hit any target "south of Beirut," which Israel quite reasonably interpreted as meaning themselves.  Since both rocketry and aircraft manufacture were banned to the Bundeswehr, a lot of German scientists were looking for work. The iconic Willy Messerschmitt himself, in fact, had set up shop in Spain (then of course still under Franco), and agreed to produce a light fighter jet design he developed there as the Helwan HA-300 in Egypt.

Nasser (dark suit),  and Al-Qahir
Those remaining German rocket scientists not already working for the US and Soviet missile programs were recruited by the Egyptians. They designed a V-2 clone (Al-Qahir, usually spelled Kaher in Western reports) and a shorter-range version (Al-Zafir), and produced at least parade mockups of a two-stage version called Al-Ra'id.

As already noted, the assassinations of German scientists were eventually linked directly to Mossad. The Egyptian missile program never got much beyond the V-2 stage. Today most of the prototypes (some of which may have been mockups for military parades) are on display in town squares, traffic roundabouts, or even children's playgrounds.

How much did the Israeli assassination project against German scientists contribute to the failure of Nasser's rocket dreams, and how much was it due to impracticality and lack of funds? We'll have to wait for the Egyptian military to declassify the files. Don't hold your breath.

The Iraqi Nuclear Program

Pretty much all of you will know about Israel's strike on Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981. Less well remembered is the killing of an Egyptian nuclear scientist said to be heading the Iraqi program, Yehia  El-Mashad, in a Paris hotel in 1980. The French  suspected Mossad, but there was no smoking gun.

A decade later, somebody shot "Iraqi supergun" designer Gerald Bull in Brussels in 1990. He'd made plenty of enemies in his day, but most people blamed Mossad.

So the string of assassinated nuclear scientists and other "accidents" in Iran lately leads a lot of observers who aren't  knee-jerk blamers of Israel to see a half-century pattern of sorts.

A Year On: A Rerun of My Favorite Tunisian Revolution Picture

I'm going to have to spend most of today on my day job, so I thought I'd do a quick rerun. Since Saturday will mark a year since the departure of Ben Ali from Tunisia, I thought I'd rerun my favorite photo from the Tunisian revolution:
Stop! I've got a baguette and I'm  not afraid to use it!!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Asad's Conspiracy Theory

I was busy at work on other things today so I'll drop in this evening to comment on Bashar al-Asad's strange speech in which he blamed a foreign conspiracy for his problems. Notice the dictators are all using the same playbook: Like Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Qadhafi, it's all some kind of foreign plot, not domestic opponents. (Well, Qadhafi was being bombed by NATO, so he had a better case.)

But like those men before him, Asad seems increasingly removed from reality. With the UN estimate of dead somewhere the far side of 5000, he's still hanging tough; even the Arab League observers are starting to notice all is not well.

Anyway, Asad seems intent on staying. There is, however, a lot of speculation about his British-born wife Asma, who hasn't made any public appearances in a while, and according to some rumors may have decamped to her old home, London.

Quandt on the US and Political Islam

Just a quick link if you haven't seen it: Bill Quandt on whether the US can adjust to a Middle East dominated by political Islamist movements.

Egyptian Results So Far as Final Runoffs Begin

Today and tomorrow are the runoffs of the third stage of the Egyptian elections for the lower house. Jadaliyya  has a summing up of the results so far:
Thus far, the fate of 427 out of 498 seats in the lower house of parliament have been determined. The remaining 71 seats include:
  • 45 seats that will be determined through runoff races from stage #3, which are scheduled to be convened on 10-11 January. These races will feature ninety candidates: 32 from the Freedom and Justice Party; 23 from Al-Nour; 2 from the Egyptian Bloc; 1 from Al-Adl; 1 from Al-Wafd; and 31 unaffiliated candidates.
  • 14 other seats will be determined through two party-list races, which have been scheduled for a re-vote on 10-11 January, namely Aswan district #1 (4 seats) and Cairo district #1 (10 seats).
  • 12 seats will be determined through re-votes in six individual-candidacy districts (2 seats each), which have been scheduled for a re-vote on 10-11 January, with possible runoffs on January 17-18: Cairo district #1; Alexandria's district #3; Assiut districts #2 and #3; Sharqiya districts #2 and #5.
And, of course, we still have the Upper House elections.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Lorimer's Gazeteer of the Gulf

There's an interesting piece at The National about one of the more amazing works of the British imperial era in the Middle East, John Gordon Lorimer's Gazeteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia. As the article notes, the project was originally classified and intended as a handbook to the region as Britain was consolidating its power there. It grew to be a six-volume, 5000 page encyclopedic survey of the history, geography, tribal structure and topography of the Gulf and its hinterlands, complete with maps and genealogical charts of the ruling families. It is the starting point for almost any historian working on the Gulf prior to the 20th century. You can find a listing of its contents here, in a prospectus for a library reprint edition.

Sadly, in an era when so many pre-1923 works are available online, only one of the six volumes actually seems to be available,  the fifth (which is called volume IIa confusingly enough), and which is the first half of the "Geograpical and Statistical" gazeteer, and is available on Google books. Browsing through it will give you a taste of the whole, and most decent Middle East libraries should have a set.

I'm glad The National thought to write about it since it's one of those works I've used but don't own myself (the reprints are pricey) and might never have thought to blog about.

Clues to Earliest Domestication of Camels Found in Sharja

There's been so much politics lately I'm glad my first post of the day, though an obit, was about a literary master, and my second is about archaeological/historical/cultural stuff and even better, camels.

The UAE Emirate of Sharja seems to have found major evidence of the very earliest domestication of the camel.

All I know about this latest discovery is what is in this article in The National, but it immediately reminded me of Richard Bulliet's 1975 masterpiece, The Camel and the Wheel. Dick Bulliet went on to run the Middle East Institute at Columbia for a long while and to contribute in many areas of Middle East studies from medieval to modern, not to mention writing four mystery novels set in the Middle East along the way, the earliest called Kicked to Death by a Camel.

But it's The Camel and the Wheel that's relevant here. I can't locate my first edition hardcover now, and mahy have loaned it out years ago and never got it back, which is why I'm glad to see (link in text above) that I can still get it through Amazon. It's a great work on the scholarly knowledge (as of 1975) on the domestication of the camel, but its real innovation is its emphasis on the fact that though, so far as is known, the wheel and wheeled vehicles first appear in the Middle East, the domestication of the camel led to the gradual replacement, at least in desert areas, of the horse by the camel, and since camels aren't draft animals, to the disappearance of wheeled vehicles where they had previously existed. Camels can bear burdens, but can't pull carts. Dick Bulliet has written on much broader topics since, but I will always remember him for this, and while I haven't seen him in several years, I have the sense it's still something he's profoundly proud of. He should be.

Writer Ibrahim Aslan, 1935-2012

I'm sorry to say I've never read anything by the Egyptian writer Ibrahim Aslan, who died over the weekend after cold medication he was taking affected his pre-existing heart problems. A novelist and social critic, one of his works was made into the famous Egyptian film Kit-Kat.

M. Lynx Qualey has an appreciation at The Egypt Independent and further comments at her Arabic Literature (in English) blog. Ahram Online's appreciation is here.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Coptic Midnight Mass: Chanting Erupts when Pope Addresses SCAF

This is very poor video and I imagine better will be available soon; I've watched some live streaming but can't actually embed that. Anyway many SCAF generals are in the front rows; the Pope's message to the attendees mentions them and noise erupts; Twitter accounts say some worshipers started chanting against SCAF and were removed.

And Pope Shenouda, at 88 and in uncertain health, is looking quite frail. I hope for better video soon (Arabic narration):
 (Video removed by YouTube)
UPDATES: Not only has YouTube taken down the previous link, but better ones are now available. This news report shows excerpts (also Arabic only except for some liturgical Coptic), but is much clearer video:

More of the Pope in better video:

Zeinobia Comments on Coptic Christmas, SCAF Presence

Zeinobia blogs about Coptic Christmas: apparently several members of SCAF, including Chief of Staff Gen. Sami Anan, are in attendance. If a video of the televised Mass shows up I'll post it; she says Pope Shenouda looks very bad and is needing help with the service.

Ahram Online on The Copts

Ahram Online has a feature for Coptic Christmas on "What Future for Christians in Egypt?," interviewing Copts about their concerns.

Christmas Greetings for Eastern Christmas

I will have more this evening but want to offer greetings to all Eastern Christians who are celebrating tonight and tomorrow. I always liked the idea of having Christmas twice, though these are difficult times for Middle Eastern Christians.

Photoshopping Out the Dome of the Rock

Israel's Haaretz notes that the Israel Defense Forces Rabbinate (the military chaplain corps in Western terms) issued a pamphlet or brochure for Hanukkah with this picture of the Western Wall:

Okay. Inspirational religious image. Obviously Photoshopped to imply the divine presence over the Temple Mount.

But anyone who knows Jerusalem may feel there's something missing here. Like this:

That's right. They also Photoshopped out the Dome of the Rock. The argument that it wasn't there at the first Hanukkah has been used as an excuse, but then shouldn't they have Photoshopped in the Second Temple?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Senior Brotherhood Figures will Attend Coptic Christmas Services.

Coptic Pope Shenouda III
I already noted that the Muslim Brotherhood has said it will help protect Coptic churches in Egypt on Christmas (tomorrow night is Christmas Eve in the Eastern churches). Now, according to the Brotherhood's English language website, the Chairman and Secretary-General of the Freedom and Justice Party (the Brotherhood's political arm), and the Deputy Chairman of the Brotherhood itself will attend the Christmas liturgy at the Coptic cathedral. Whatever one thinks of the Brotherhood's overall program, this shows, I think, an astute political ear.

Pope Shenouda III, meanwhile, is talking about dialogue with Islamists. Though he will doubtless be criticized by the Coptic diaspora, that's also a sign of a realistic assessment of a changed reality.

Two Must-Reads on Egypt

I'm working on some thoughts of my own on SCAF, the elections, and such, but for now haven't the free time to flesh it out, so let me point  you to two extremely important articles on Egypt recently:

Another Headline I Never Expected to Use Here: Leftwing Israeli LOLCats

No, really.  Back in 1990 when Tim Berners-Lee proposed the World Wide Web, he probably saw it as a means of linking scientists, since he was working for CERN, the subatomic physics folks who, so far as I am aware, were not trying to figure out how to create a medium whereby anyone's video of their cat playing a piano could be seen by more people than have ever seen Citizen Kane. (Nor, I presume, were they seeking a way to distribute pornography, but I'm not as confident on that one.)

Anyway, being a dog person, I've never been that big into the whole LOLCats thing. But apparently, according to this article by Ami Kaufman at the +972 web magazine, the latest big Internet meme in Israel is "Cats Who Incite to the Left," [this link is in Hebrew and my Hebrew is too rudimentary for most of it; but Kaufman's post has a lot of examples with English subtitles]; the background as he explains it:
The latest internet meme to conquer Israeli cyber-space is the “lefty-cat”. It all started when an actual pro-pussy Facebook page put up a picture of a man who urged his dog to attack cats. The page identified him as a right winger, as well. This immediately prompted one reader to start her own Facebook page, called “Ban those who incite to the left using cats” (besides the horrific syntax, the Hebrew title is also embarrassingly misspelled, reading something like “Ban those who divert to the left…”).
She then wrote under that picture “What do his political views have to do with his terrible deeds”? Indeed, a legitimate question – and apparently enough in today’s Israel to claim that leftists are not only the epitome of evil, they also use cats to betray the homeland.
So the left is having fun with it. By the way, if you're not familiar with +972, it's an English language  webzine from Israel with a distinctly pro-peace flavor to it, like these seditious cats. If you're puzzled by the title, +972 is the international telephone country code for Israel. I'm adding it to my blogroll.

Here are some others, with English captions, from the post.

"The Demographic Threat"

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

For the Reference Files: Biographies of the New Moroccan Cabinet

For reference purposes: Morocco's Le Matin gives us biographies of the members of the new Moroccan Cabinet. (In French. Will try to add an Arabic link if I see one.)

Muslims Supporting Copts for Christmas

With Eastern Christmas arriving Friday night and Saturday, Coptic Pope Shenouda has invited all Muslim groups to attend services; and given church attacks in Alexandria at New Year's last year, and at Nag Hammadi on Christmas in January 2010, many Muslims are reaching out to Christians, and the Muslim Brotherhood has even offered to protect churches, though the Salafi Al-Nour party doesn't share the sentiment. (In fact, the MB even endorsed a Coptic Parliamentary candidate running against a Nour candidate.)

On New Year's eve, there were marches, including many Muslims, to the Church of Two Saints in Alexandria (bombed a year ago in a still unsolved case) and also a joint Muslim-Christian crowd at the Qasr al-Doubara Anglican church just off Tahrir Square, chanting "Muslims and Christians are one hand."

Except for the Salafis playing Grinch in the whole affair, it's encouraging, but the dangers of radical attacks on Christian churches at Christmas is still very real. A video (in Arabic) about last year's New Year's bombing a year later:


First Surviving Film Footage of Jerusalem: 1896

 A YouTube video (with a modern narrator) of the oldest video of Jerusalem, taken in 1896: