A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Egypt Sets Presidential Election Date

I know the posting has been heavily skewed toward Egypt this week, but stuff keeps happening there. The election dates for the long-awaited Presidential elections have finally been set: Nominations open March 18 and run for 10 days. official campaigns run April 30-May 21. Egyptians abroad will vote for seven days beginning May 11, presumably through consulates as was done for Parliament. Elections May 23rd and 24th; with first round results announced May 29;  runoffs June 16 and 17; results announced June 21. So technically the promise to hold elections "before the end of May" is kept, though we still won't know who won until late June. (Unless one candidate wins 50% in round one, which seems improbable unless the votes are counted as they wee under Mubarak.) More here.

1453 and All That: New Turkish Film a Huge Hit

The new Turkish film Fetih 1453 (Conquest 1453) has been seen by two and a half million people and made a couple of million dollars in its first week in theaters.

At one time, I'm told (perhaps it's just apocrypha among historians of the Middle Ages), either Oxford or Cambridge ended their history courses  with 1453, Everything after that was considered current events. I regret to say that most people today (well, outside Turkey and the Orthodox Christian countries) probably don't even recognize the date. May 29, 1453, was the date Constantinople (Istanbul today) fell to the Turks. It was the end of the Eastern Roman Empire ("Byzantine" is a modern coinage; they always called themselves Romans) after an 1,100 year run, and the crowning moment of the Ottoman expansion. The film has got German Christians upset apparently, and of course the Greeks. Here's the trailer, with English subtitles:

A Key Figure in Bahrain's Colonial Era is Gone

An interesting historical footnote here about Jassim Buheiji, a key figure in nationalist agitation in Bahrain in the 1950s, who has recently passed away. He was active in the movement for independence from Britain and influenced by Arab nationalism. Also the piece notes Miriam Joyce's 2000 article in MEJ on the subject. (Though I'm checking to see if the link to the article online has a copyright release from us.) I recently saw Professor Joyce and she was surprised I still remembered her article, but there's so little on pre-independence politics in Bahrain.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Shura Council Convenes to Do Whatever it is it Does

 Earlier this year I noted some of the mysteries surrounding Egypt's Upper House of Parliament, the Shura Council; the biggest one being "What's it supposed to do?" Other than providing a lot of appointive positions (a third of its members are appointed, two-thirds elected), it's official duties are mostly to ratify constitutional amendments, treaties, etc. The newly-elected Shura Council met for the first time today, electing Ahmad Fahmy of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party as its Speaker. The FJP won a solid majority of 105 of the 180 elected seats in the Shura Council elections, with extraordinarily low turnout in the elections (the runoff of round two got only a 7.2% turnout).

The elections cost a lot of money, and many people were openly wondering why Egypt even needed an upper house. Many liberals (and others) think the Council should be abolished. This would seem to be logical, but the current government (and thus presumably the SCAF) and the Muslim Brotherhood — in other words, the two bodies whose opinions can be implemented — disagree.

The government wants to strengthen it, not abolish it:
The Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, counselor Mohammed Attiya, said the meeting will be held under the chairmanship of the Speaker of the People’s Assembly Saad el-Katatni.
He told reporters that the Shura Council has become “worthy of obtaining a stronger parliamentary role by increasing its legislative and oversight competencies in parallel with the People’s Assembly to strengthen democratic life.”

He added that the role of the Upper House, or Shura Council, would “achieve balance in the performance of the parliamentary institution, especially since it includes the competencies needed by the country at the present stage of the Shura Council,” and rejected the abolition of the Upper House under calls to reduce state expenditures.
Nor is the government alone. Since the FJP dominates the lower house and controls the upper house outright, guess which party (surprise, surprise!) also wants to strengthen the role of the Shura Council?

One new role the Council is already slated to play is joining with the People's Assembly in choosing the body to write the new Constitution. The two chambers will assemble Saturday to choose that Constitutional Assembly to write the new charter.

Precisely what the Shura Council will do after that remains to be seen.

Muhammad Mahmoud Street Becomes Graffiti Central

This and other stills below from suzeeinthecity.com
I've noted before that Muhammad Mahmoud Street, the street in downtown Cairo where I ;lived back in 1977-78, became a key battleground in November and then again earlier this month after the Port Said football deaths. It has also been a major venue for Cairo's revolutionary graffiti scene, with the American University in Cairo's walls providing the canvas. Al Jazeera English takes note of the fact and provides this video:

A lot of attention has been paid to graffiti in all the Arab revolutions, and especially in Egypt. (Not njust in countries in open revolt either: here's a site on Saudi street art.)  I've posted the occasional photo or link, but haven't talked about it in detail. Perhaps the Muhammad Mahmoud development is a good reason to do so. Besides the pharaonic themes I'm reproducing here, the walls also contain portraits of the dead supporters of the Ahly football team who died at Port Said, often depicted with wings.

Blogger suzeeinthecity, whose blog regularly posts collections of graffiti and who occasionally interviews the artists, has an appeal to AUC to leave the current art up on its wall. The photo at top, much of the Al Jazeera video, and the pharaonic themed paintings below are all on the AUC walls. As she puts it:
Dear AUC,
You will probably not listen to me – why should you? I’m clearly no art expert with any weight to throw around – but please don’t paint over this wall. These artists have worked tirelessly for two weeks to commemorate the deaths of 75 young men, including a student of yours, working days and nights through tear gas and riots to pay tribute to the dead.
This, in my humble opinion, is a masterpiece. And you clearly have bigger things to worry about, such as the fact that every single side street down Mohamed Mahmoud has been blocked by concrete slab walls, or that the military has turned your area into a war zone and has no problem shooting students, doctors or journalists. Or the fact that your Greek Campus SS Building has had a fire on its upper floor, and probably several other properties have been harmed in the past months of clashes. And who knows what more violence the future will bring?
As an institution that teaches art and publishes books on Egyptian art, including one on graffiti soon, please take pride in this mural on your walls, and instead of removing it, protect it. Show it off as a symbol of how your campus was in a pivotal location in so many historical events that have shaped our country for the past year.
But clearly this will fall on deaf ears and you will paint over it all. NB: painting a wall gives a new canvas to a graffiti artist. They will keep coming back. Just so you know. You might as well save the paint. Your effort is futile.
I don't know her identity, but I'm sure AUC knows Al Jazeera English's identity, and while I have no particular clout there either, I see no reason not to note that preserving this work of street art seems worth doing. She has a much fuller collection of the Muhammad Mahmoud photos here.

One of the interesting things about the Egyptian graffiti is that a number of graffiti artists with distinctive styles have emerged, often signing their work and gaining a following, such as Ganzeer. Someone could write a book on the subject and if AUC press is up to their usual quality, I imagine they'll publish it.

The pharaonic themes are recurrent: this by Alaa Awad:

Another pharaonic theme:

And this by Muhammad Alaa:

There are good views of these in the AJE clip above, as well. I find the pharaonic theme intriguing, since the vast majority of the graffiti I've seen has been standard revolutionary street art: some of it stenciled, some painted, but mostly contemporary, political, and often aimed at either demonizing or insulting authority. That's worth preserving too, and some of it is clever. But this seems to transcend that. It evokes the deep past and the Egyptian identity.

The walls along Muhammad Mahmoud saw plenty of graffiti in November and December, most of it quickly painted over (hence the above plea to leave the current art in place). Here's an interesting palmpsest of graffiti along the stret from late last year, also from suzeeinthecity. It's more the typical mix of slogans and scrawled graffiti, with one quite clever item (and one crude one). Although I mainly want to talk about the Arabic, it needs a language warning due to an English expletive on the same wall, which English readers will naturally gravitate to first:

The most interesting part is not the profanity, though I'll address that too, but the part on the right, painted to resemble one of the plaques used to give street names. It reads "Street of the Field Marshal's Massacre (Formerly Muhammad Mahmoud)."  No doubt long since painted over,the mimicking of the street sign struck me as notable (and others, as I've seen other photos of it from differing angles).

The painting to its left, in the colors of the flag, with the manacled hands, reads "Freedom Must Come." On the left, under the obvious "Fuck SCAF," (sorry: there's little point in my using asterisks here, as it's right there in the picture), is something about the Field Marshal in Arabic, possibly (?) Tiz ya Mushir, which would be rude, but not as rude as the English,and hard to translate exactly (possibly in the "Up yours" range of offensiveness).

This brings up a delicate subject I've noted, at least from my long distance perch, though discussing it may offend some readers. I can't really talk about it without giving examples, so first, strong language warning in both English and Arabic. Nor do I wish to suggest that most of the graffiti is vulgar: from what I've seen, it's not, and I hope mentioning it here doesn't offend too many readers (if the photo above upsets you, stop reading) nor do I want to imply that profanity is common. But I think it's an interesting linguistic observation, even if I have to cite offensive language to make it: at least in terms of the graffiti photographed by bloggers, English profanity (mostly "Fuck SCAF," and before that, Mubarak) has seemed much more common than Arabic, at least as graffiti if not in speech, despite Arabic's rich wealth of vocabulary for cursing and obscenity. I've seen the same "Fuck SCAF" phrase in photos of a tent in Tahrir, and on lots of walls (and #FuckSCAF became a common Twitter hashtag). On the other hand, strong language in Arabic, while heard on plenty of YouTube videos and angry Twitter posts in Arabic, doesn't appear as much on walls, at least in the graffiti photos I've seen (exception below). Once again, I'm not there, and perhaps those taking the photos are self-censoring in Arabic, or the authorities are painting over Arabic profanity before it can be photographed. Or perhaps it's the revolutionaries themselves, more willing to curse in English than in Arabic (what if grandma found out?). I suspect in all seriousness it's an attempt not to alienate and offend the less-educated populace (who are conservative and would object) but who would be unable to read the English, combined with the cachet among many young elite Egyptians of English, especially transgressive English.

But they definitely don't appear to be as quick to use profanity in Arabic on walls (again: they seem to use it in their chants, though). Also from one of suzeeinthecity's earlier collections, I found one graffiti use of very strong Arabic — but it uses the equivalent of asterisks:

In small script at the top: "Connect the dots:" then "*** umm al-Maglis al-‘Askari." Anyone knowing Arabic (probably even the hypothetical grandma mentioned above), will know that the missing three letters are kuss (the u is not written), the most vulgar Arabic term for the vagina, followed by "of the mother of SCAF" (profanity rarely makes sense in any language). It's easily the functional equivalent of "Fuck SCAF," and arguably even more taboo, given recent trends in English. Yet it's censored with the dots instead of the word. It's the equivalent of "**** SCAF." Readers know what is meant, but unlike the English above, it's not actually written. Standard for newspapers, perhaps, but on a graffiti wall?

Apologies for the brief diversion into revolutionary cursing. There's a scholarly article in there somewhere, perhaps for comparative linguists. I hope I haven't detracted from the genuine art above.

Sawiris Case Dismissed

An Egyptian court has dismissed one of two cases against media mogul and billionaire Naguib Sawiris charging him with insulting Islam, for sending a cartoon on his Twitter feed of Mickey and Minnie Mouse dressed as Salafis (Mickey bearded, Minnie veiled). (Lacking Sawiris' billions, I'll just note that if you Google "Naguib Sawiris Mickey Mouse cartoon" you can find the image. I don't think it insults Islam, though perhaps it inslts Salafis. I think it makes Mickey and Minnie look bad, though.) Though Sawiris had deleted the tweet and apologized for it, the case took on added import because of his financial power and the fact that he is a Copt; it was seen as a Salafi attempt to prevent criticism by Egyptian Christians. (He's also the founder of a liberal; secularist political party.) Other stories here and here. (Full disclosure note: the first link above is to The Egypt Independent, which is a member of Sawiris' media empire.)

Sawiris still faces another court ruling in the case, due Saturday. (No word if he's worried about the potential threat of a trademark infringement case from Disney, which should scare anybody.)

Libya's Imazighen Since the Revolution

 Tunisia-Live has a new piece on the status of Libya's Amazigh ("Berber") population since the downfall of Qadhafi, particularly focusing on the town of Zuwara.

I'm glad to see that local media (especially in Tunisia, whose minuscule Amazigh population is also seeking to reassert its identity), are paying some attention to the Amazigh identity movement,one of the non-Arab aspects of "Arab Spring." The article embeds a video of a rousing revolutionary poem/song witin Tamazight with subtitles in English and Arabic:

Tharwat Okasha (1921-2012), Culture Chief Under Nasser, Dies at 91

One of the few remaining figures from Gamal Abdel Nasser's era in Egypt, longtime Culture Minister Tharwat Okasha, has died at age 91.

Originally a military officer and supporter of the Free Officers' coup (though not on the Revolutionary Command Council), Okasha served in a number of diplomatic posts before becoming Minister of Culture in 1958. In 1960 he earned a doctorate from the Sorbonne. He published numerous books and was the dominant figure in cultural affairs throughout the rest of the Nasser era, though as the Ahram Online obit linked above notes, his role in imposing an authoritarian stamp on Egypt's cultural life makes his legacy controversial.

Monday, February 27, 2012

That Syrian Constitutional Referendum: A Question

Okay. The Syrian government says there was a 57% turnout for the Constitutional referendum, and that 89% voted yes.  Who would question those numbers? But how, I wonder, did the 138 Syrians killed today by their own government vote?

The "Jerusalem Syndrome"

Many years ago, on one of my first trips of Jerusalem, I visited an American friend who had recently joined the US Foreign Service and was assigned as some sort of junior consular officer in the US Consulate in East Jerusalem. He explained at the time that as the junior consular officer present, he was the one on call to take possession from the Israeli authorities of any self-proclaimed messiahs or prophets who showed up in town or at the airport without visible means of support and with American nationality. Apparently this was a frequent enough occurrence for there to be a designated consular officer assigned the task, and other foreign consulates presumably had analogous officials. Apparently it's a pretty frequent occurrence in the holy city for someone to show up at immigration and announce that they are Jesus Christ or King David or the Jewish Messiah. (Though I assume they needed some other documentation to get through the immigration at the airport, assuming they didn't just descend from the heavens without the help of El Al.) The Israelis, at least back then, turned them over to their respective consulates (if they couldn't support themselves anyway) and let them figure out what to do with them.

I don't know what the consular arrangements may be nowadays, but this article called "The Jerusalem Syndrome" in Wired talks to an Israeli psychiatrist who interacts with many of the chosen messengers, so obviously they're still showing up in Jerusalem.

Springborg on the Brotherhood/SCAF Alliance/Rivalry

Bob Springborg has a good piece at Foreign Policy called "Egypt's Cobra and Mongoose," on the Muslim Brotherhood/SCAF dynamic. He notes the history:
The deadly struggle for power between Egypt's rulers and Muslim Brothers dates back to the rule of King Faruq, with each episode following virtually the identical script. Each time, for a brief period ruler and Brothers "cohabit," but the marriage of convenience soon breaks down amidst mutual recrimination. The ruler, recently arrived on the monarchial or presidential throne, reaches out to the Brothers to benefit from or at least neutralize the political support they command. For their part the Brothers seek purchase within the state to ward off threats, obtain resources, and gain footholds from which they may commence their final ascent to power. But this cooperation will not last, to judge by history -- a history well known to all players in today's unfolding story.
It's an interesting contribution to the analysis of the ongoing dynamic. But are we sure the Army is still the mongoose in this equation?

Khamis Qadhafi, Killed Several Times Last Year, Reportedly Captured Alive

There are reports out of Libya that Khamis Qadhafi, son of the late Libyan lea.leader and head of an elite brigade, who was reportedly killed last August (and, in fact, reportedly killed two three times before that), has been captured alive. [Link wasn't working; now fixed, but also being labeled "a baseless rumor."]

A veritable Rasputin.

Still More Nostalgic Photos

 A few days back I posted on sources of old and nostalgic photos of Egypt and the Middle East. Now I've discovered an Arabic-language Facebook community called Antika, whose Arabic description is simply "Everything that is old and antique," and where people are posting not only nostalgic photos but old advertisements, celebrity photos, and what not. A quick sample suggests lots of Syrian/Levantine material though a mix of other sources too. (Sorry: link was absent; fixed now.)

Friday, February 24, 2012

New Work on the Jewish Himyarite Kingdom of South Arabia

The Fall 2011 publication of the Institute for Advanced Study contains this piece by Glen Bowersock called "The Rise and Fall of a Jewish Kingdom in Arabia." A quote:
Friends and colleagues alike have reacted with amazement and disbelief when I have told them about the history I have been looking at. In the southwestern part of Arabia, known in antiquity as Himyar and corresponding today approximately with Yemen, the local population converted to Judaism at some point in the late fourth century, and by about 425 a Jewish kingdom had already taken shape. For just over a century after that, its kings ruled, with one brief interruption, over a religious state that was explicitly dedicated to the observance of Judaism and the persecu­tion of its Christ­ian population
My reaction was, what, people don't know about the Himyarites? It's pretty much old news to specialists in late antiquity, early Islamic history, Byzantine history, and the history of Ethiopia. Now, the average man in the street may not fit into any of those categories, but I would have expected the "friends and colleagues" of Professor Bowersock, a distinguished expert on late antiquity, to know the basic outlines. Anyway, this blog has been stuck in the last couple of centuries lately, so the article is an excuse for a digression to provide you some weekend reading. Bowersock is working on a book on the subject, but the linked article is rather brief and introductory. Still, one of my old mentors, Irfan Shahid, did the landmark studies of pre-Islamic Arab relations with Byzantium, including one called The Martyrs of Najran, which relates directly to this subject, so I have an excuse to pontificate though I'm in no way qualified to really talk about the subject. The rest of this post is me, not Bowersock, and may not be how he interprets the period.

Arabia and Vicinity 565 AD (Wikipedia)
See Link for Creative Commons attribution
In the centuries immediately before the rise of Islam, the Arabian Peninsula was something of a competitive ground for the great regional powers of the day: the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, the Sassanian Empire in Iran, and the somewhat smaller Ethiopian Empire. Two of these, Byzantium and Ethiopia, were Christian (though divided by the Orthodox-"Monophysite" split), and the Sassanians were revivalist Zoroastrians.

In addition, there had long been a series of kingdoms in South Arabia, most famously Saba (as in the Queen of Sheba) and its neighbor and successor Himyar. These spoke a group of Semitic languages more closely related to the languages of Ethiopia than those of northern Arabia, and were sometimes under Ethiopian control. From the fifth century, as noted, Himyar's kings converted to Judaism. It may be that they saw this as a means of counterbalance to their Christian and Zoroastrian great power neighbors, or as a means of proclaiming neutrality; in any event, it was one of the rare instances (like the conversion of the Khazar Kingdom in western Asia centuries later) where a kingdom with no direct connection with Jewish history adopted Judaism as its official faith.

The rest of the Arabian Peninsula outside what we now call Yemen was a zone of regional power competition, with the more powerful neighboring powers cultivating local Arab tribal kingdoms as client or satellite states. Byzantium's client state was the Ghassanid Kingdom, based at Jabiya in the Golan Heights and embracing what is now parts of Syria, Jordan, and northwestern Saudi Arabia. Like their Byzantine patrons, the Ghassanids were Christians, though of the Monophysite variety. To their east, in what is today Iraq and northeastern Saudi Arabia, lay the Lakhmids, based at Hira on the Euphrates in Iraq, a client state of the Sassanians. Though mainly Christian rather than Zoroastrian, they were Nestorian Christians, like most Christians in the Sassanian sphere of influence. The Ghassanids and Lakhmids formed buffer states between Byzantium and Persia and between both of those powers and the nomadic Arab raiders of the peninsula.

The Himyarite Kingdom in South Arabia also had its own client buffer state in the northern part of the peninsula: this was Kinda, which ruled Hadramawt and the Najd, and was usually under Himyarite influemce. (Imr'ul-Qays, the great pre-Islamic poet, was a son of one of the last Kings of Kinda.) Meanwhile the Hijaz, including the caravan cities of Mecca and Yathrib (later Medina), provided the trading corridor among these rival powers, where all the competing political and religious tendencies would be in evidence.

This is the context in which the Jewish Himyarite Kingdom flourished and eventually fell. Leaving aside a lot of history (mostly known from Byzantine, Syriac, Ethiopian, and early Islamic Arab histories, though there are some Old South Arabian inscriptions and coins confirming the basic outlines), Himyar ruled the region in the fifth and sixth centuries AD; the downfall began after the accession of Joseph or Yusuf, known to history as Dhu Nuwas, as King. Some feel he was a usurper of the rightful Himyarite line. In either 518 or 523 (the chronology is confusing) he attacked the towns of Zafar and Najran, largely Christian towns in southwest Arabia under the control of the Ethiopian Kingdom of Axum, killing the Christian population. King Kaleb of Axum, the Ethiopian Negus, went to war against Dhu Nuwas, with a Byzantine Navy providing assistance in an alliance of Christian states against the Jewish Himyarites.

That was the end of the Jewish Kingdom of Himyar; Dhu Nuwas was killed and Himyar came under Axumite rule. Eventually a Christian viceroy of the Axumite King named Abraha made himself ruler; Islamic tradition speaks of a raid he made against Mecca in the "Year of the Elephant" (570 AD or somewhat earlier), said by some to be the year of the Prophet Muhammad's birth. Abraha's successors eventually lost their independence to Persian rule.

With that little glimpse into pre-Islamic late antiquity, enjoy your weekend.

Yemen's New President Will Be Sworn In Tomorrow

‘Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi has been elected Yemen's new President; he'll be sworn in tomorrow and a formal inaugural ceremony will be held Monday.

He was elected with 99.8% of the vote. His predecessor, ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih, is returning from the US and expected to attend the inauguration. Hadi was Salih's Vice President.

The Yemeni Revolution isn't looking very revolutionary right at the moment.

Not Revolution 2.0: Social Media as Lynch Mob in the Kashgari Case

I haven't commented up to now on the case of Hamza Kashgari, the Saudi journalist who had to flee the Kingdom due to his Twitter tweets about the Prophet Muhammad, and who was then seized in Malaysia and extradited back to Saudi Arabia for possible trial, which could even entail the death penalty. The basic issues of freedom of expression seem clear enough, and the case is even more dismaying because of Malaysia's role in delivering him back to KSA after he had made his escape. Certainly Kashgari's tweets were ill-advised for someone living in Saudi Arabia (what parts of "Commission for the P:romotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice" and "Religious Police" did he not understand?), but the potentially draconian punishment is provoking justifiable outrage. Background stories here and here if you haven't been following it.

But there's another side to the whole Kashgari issue that is worth noting amid all the talk over the past year of the Arab uprisings as "social media revolutions," "Revolution 2.0," and so on. In the Kashgari case, it is the social media that have been baying for his scalp.

As this piece in Canada's MacLeans notes,  the Internet has been playing the role of lynch mob in the Kashgari case. YouTube videos call for his death; chat rooms demand it.

Then there is the battle of the Facebook groups. As of this writing, the "The Saudi People Demand Retribution from Hamza Kashgari (Arabic)" Facebook page has 26,711 members.  "Free Hamza Kashgari," on the other hand, has 6,700. Of course there are other pages and other forums, but it seems clear that supporters of the Saudi religious establishment are using social media to demand punishment. Though the page itself does not immediately call for his death, many of the posters do. (In contrast, the Grand Mufti of Egypt has noted, "We don't kill our sons; we talk to them.")

Yes, social media can be a major organizing tool for revolutionary change. It can also be the modern equivalent of the lynch mob.

Al Jazeera Goes to Mahalla

A couple of weeks ago I noted in passing the continuing labor unrest in Egypt's big Delta textile industry center of Mahalla;  which has a good argument for being where the revolution really started; now Al Jazeera English reports on the huge factory there and its legacy of unrest. An important notice of a much-underreported story (underreported because the government has limited access).

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Some Great Sources for Old Egypt Photos

This blog frequently indulges in nostalgia, both to provide the historical background of present issues or just to retell some of the important events of the last couple of centuries; as a result I frequently have included old photos, old videos, etc. Many of these have been of Egypt, reflecting that country's centrality in the Arab world and my own personal interest in its history.

I thought I'd call attention to a couple of useful sites for old photos and other imagery of Egypt. As usual don't reproduce things without verifying if they are protected by copyright or are public domain.

The Biblioteca Alexandrina has a collection on Remembering Contemporary Egypt which includes sections for photos, videos, maps, and much else, and covers most of the period since the Napoleonic Expedition/Muhammad ‘ Ali era. Though the Alexandrian library has many pages in English or French, these are all in Arabic. But here, for example, is a page on portraits of public figures: rulers, Prime Ministers, other public personalities. I've only dipped into a few of the areas, but it looks like a great resource. (I blogged last year about another prize from the Biblioteca Alexandrina: The Déscription de l'Égypte Online.

Another useful site for nostalgic browsing is L'Egypte d'antan/Egypt of Bygone Days, (also available in Arabic at كانت أيام).Unfortunately as the home page notes, the author of the site, Max Karkégi-Pacha, died last year, so it is not being updated.

Not limited to Egypt but including it is the collection of thousands of vintage photos online at the New York Public Library:  The Middle East in Early Prints and Photographs.

These aren't the only resource sites, but they'll do for now.


Updates from the Fronts of the Culture Wars in Egypt and Tunisia

Tunisia and Egypt, having thrown off long-ruling dictators and reshaped their political systems and elected new Parliaments, are (or at least some of the more vocal people are) continuing to devote a fair amount of time and energy to the really important issues. No, not the economy, or jobs, or poverty, but the really important issues like whether soccer is permitted in Islam, whether to ban bikinis, whether policemen can wear beards, whether to ban an MP from Parliament for something he said, and of course the eternal vigilance required to prevent widespread outbreaks of public nudity, so common in the Arab world.

Now, I try not to indulge the temptation (beloved of certain newspapers and many Arab secularists) of pouncing on every outrageous statement by some Salafi Islamist, what might be called the Crazy Sheikh/Crazy Fatwa of the week syndrome. Since Sunni Islam lacks a clerical hierarchy like that in Iranian Shi‘ism, almost anybody can grow a beard, call himself Sheikh and start issuing fatwas. (Say, I already have a beard ...) Usually no one pays attention except perhaps his immediate family: there are official bodies in most countries for issuing religious decisions. Al-Azhar in Egypt (and to some extent Zeitouna in Tunisia) have an authority based on antiquity, prestige, and custom, whereas most of the self-proclaimed Salafi spokesmen lack even a formal Islamic degree. Some have no followers, but the Daily Mail usually doesn't ask for their credentials if their statement is outrageous enough.

For example, late last year there was a report going around that I never quoted: a sheikh had supposedly ruled that women should not eat or cook with bananas or zucchini because the phallic shape of the fruit or vegetable might give them ideas. It was so outrageous that it was hard not to report it, but my alarm bells went off: the story not only did not identify the sheikh; it simply said he was in "a European country." So an unnamed sheikh, in some unidentified country in Europe (France? Denmark? Kosovo? Bosnia?) makes an utterly outlandish statement which gets quoted all over the place without any sourcing? That's why I stayed away from it.

But then,there are the statements made by Islamists whose opinions, whatever their religious credentials or lack thereof, are enhanced by being elected to the Egyptian or Tunisian Parliament. Or, like the frequently quoted Egyptian Salafi ‘Abd al-Mun‘em al-Shahat, defeated in his run for Parliament. (But that hasn't shut him up.) Besides being one of the loudest advocates for banning bikinis and alcohol and covering Pharaonic monuments in wax, Shahat has denounced the novels of Naguib Mahfouz as promoting sex and drugs, and after the Port Said disaster announced that professional soccer is contrary to Islam. (Good luck with that one. It's going to be hard to sell to the Qataris, Wahhabi though they may be in background, as they gear up to host the World Cup.)

Shahat's latest venture is particularly sinister. since he has said that Baha'is have no rights, but I'm not really posting about Shahat, who is a marginal figure, but about some of the more prominent moves by those with some official function or who can actually effect changes in policy. Nor are these incidents all in one direction: some show a backlash against the growing Islamist wave. I've previously posted about the controversies that might affect tourism (the "booze and bikinis" debate) (also here),
Photo From Bikya Masr
but the whole question of social practices and public mores is increasingly engaging Islamists and secularists in both Egypt and Tunisia. Tunisia, with its tradition of secularism, women's rights, and Westernization going back to the Bourguiba era, is seeing more and more culture-wars sort of incidents, though Egypt remains the front line.

This represents a gathering of the culture war skirmishes in both countries over the past couple of weeks. Controversies over hijab and niqab also continue to recur, but these are new:

1. Egypt: Should Policemen be Allowed to Grow Beards?

Not every item in this list is a case of Islamists pressing for new strictures: some relates to the opposite reaction of resistance to Islamist pressures. In Egypt, where for decades under Husni Mubarak when an Egyptian police officer thought "beard," the word that came to mind was "suspect," some policemen are agitating for the right to grow beards.  At least one policeman has been suspended.  And of course, there's now a Facebook group called "I Am a Bearded Police Officer."  (UPDATE: the actual Facebook page (in Arabic) is here.) The Interior Minister, however, is having none of it, and reportedly has threatened to try those who grow them. Some Salafi politicians have denounced the rule, but others have actually said they would respect the rules, feeling they don't need a fight with the police and the Interior Minister over a mainly symbolic issue. Most Egyptian Islamists have some experience of taking on the police and the Interior Ministry, much of it involving incarceration. There are other reports of backlash against Islamist pressures in more unofficial ways; a beard can still keep you from getting certain jobs, and reports like this one suggest that some elite restaurants are turning away women customers wearing hijab.

2. Egypt and Tunisia: Mixed Signals on Internet Filtering

In Egypt, a Salafi Al-Nour Party MP has called for a ban on pornographic sites on the Internet. Since there is little evidence that Egyptian servers are hosting such sites, this would mean filtering access to the Internet. As the article notes, there may be a real issue here:
In 2011, Egypt landed in the number five spot globally in searching for “sex” online, joined by Algeria and Morocco also in the top 10, according to Google trends. Arabic language is used second only to English as the language of search choice for adult content online.
Which may say something about the society, but it's also noted that a 2009 attempt to do the same led to the Ministry responding that it was up to the individual user. And of course, many countries that filter the Internet (China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc.) nobly announce they are blocking porn and then block a lot of sites using dirty words like "democracy" and "human rights" along the way. We'll see where this one goes. Of course, whether filtering pornography is the single greatest issue in Egypt today (as opposed to bearded policemen, the movie industry, women not wearing hijab, or even, say, the collapsed economy) is another matter.

In Tunisia, on the other hand, the wind may be blowing in a different direction. A ruling last year after the Revolution ordered the filtering of pornographic websites and was upheld by the Court of Appeals. But now that verdict has been quashed by the Court of Cassation, though instead of overturning it outright, the Court sent the case back to the Appeals Court.

3. Memo to Egyptian MPs: Watch Out for  Folksy Sayings, They Can Get You in Trouble
Meanwhile in Egypt, a young, liberal Member of the new Parliament, Ziad Eleimy, has gotten himself into some trouble over a folk saying he quoted. Eleimy, a member of the small Social Democratic Party, gave a speech in Port Said in which he was addressing the blame for the recent Port Said football massacre. Like many others, he blames not just the perpetrators but the absence of security forces and, by extension, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).  That may be unfair, but he's hardly the only one holding that opinion. He quoted an Egyptian folk saying which conveys the idea of blaming underlings while letting the real culprits go. Unfortunately the saying is, "we let the donkey get away while holding on to the saddle" (نترك الحمار ونمسك بالبردعة). Nice and folksy, the sort of thing politicians say, right?

Well, maybe not. Speaker Sa‘d al-Katatny and others immediately accused Eleimy of calling Field Marshal Tantawi a donkey. Soon Parliament was investigating him, "hundreds" of lawsuits were being filed, and while SCAF said it won't take legal action, Parliament has rejected Eleimy's explanation that he didn't mean to call Tantawi a donkey but had merely been quoting a well-known proverb. And of course, liberal demonstrators are rallying to his side.

He was also criticized for comments he made on a Salafi sheikh, but he has already apologized in person for that. 

We are seeing, however, as we have before, what the Internet has dubbed as the Streisand Effect: by making a fuss about something, you call far more attention to something that might otherwise have been overlooked entirely. He probably didn't mean to call Tantawi a donkey, but if you search for himar in Arabic script now,you'll find cartoons, comments, and YouTube videos that aren't so subtle.  Himar isn't even that strong an insult; it's the sort of thing Egyptians shout at each other every day in street disputes, and a little time on Twitter can find Egyptians calling the Field Marshal much worse (though they aren't Members of Parliament). [UPDATE: In addition to Al-Sha‘b yurid Isqat al-Mushir — "The People Want the Fall of the Field Marshal" — there is now, inevitably, Al-Sha‘b yurid Isqat al-Himar.]

4. Tunisia: Reprinting a Picture Can Land a Publisher in Jail, and Not for Infringing Copyright

The censorship issue usually leads to seizures of publications or even their closure; it is much rarer for it to lead to the imprisonment of the Publisher. But in usually liberal Tunisia, the latest of several controversies has produced exactly that result. The Publisher of Al-Tounissia, a post-revolutionary newspaper that began online but has now begun print publication, and two of his editors were arrested; the staffers were freed but Publisher Nasreddine Ben Said is still in prison and staging a hunger strike. [UPDATE: He was released today.] His crime? Reprinting a picture from a European magazine. The charge was not copyright infringement but offending public morals.

The picture he ran was taken from the cover of the March issue of the German edition of GQ magazine, and shows Tunisian-German soccer star Sami Khedira posing with his blonde German model girlfriend. Al-Tounissia's front page and the GQ cover are both reproduced at left. In fact, the Arabic headline reads, "Photos of Player Sami Khedira Cause a Stir in Spain." ("Player," indeed, but they mean soccer player: he plays for Real Madrid.) As you can see from both photos at left, he is wearing a tuxedo; she is wearing only his right hand. It's a suggestive, teasing cover fairly standard for a European fashion mag cover, but not so for a Tunisian newspaper, though European magazines with similar covers do circulate in Tunisia. As with some other recent controversies, calling this a "nude" cover (as some headlines have) may not be quite accurate, since her chest is concealed (apparently quite securely), but in some ways the positioning of the hand makes it even more suggestive.

But the issue, of course, is that the picture appeared at all, though some advertisements and foreign publications in Tunisia, not to mention satellite television from Europe, are far more daring. Nor was GQ claiming copyright infringement. The released Editors said they were reporting a news story about a Tunisian celebrity. I'm convinced it was purely the news value that motivated them, and that the fact that said Tunisian celebrity happened to be posing with his hand on the breasts of a naked blonde model had nothing to do with it. (Not that I've got any problems with that.)

Again if the newspaper had been seized or banned there would have been a minor kerfuffle among free speech advocates; it was the jailing of the Publisher that has provoked outrage. And as usual in these cases, the Streisand effect (see above) has also guaranteed the reproduction of the offending photo on websites and news outlets throughout the Arab world (not all showing the whole thing of course). I'm sure far more people have seen the photo (including you, dear reader) than if the prosecutor had looked the other way or just ordered the issue pulped.

On the positive side, though the Ministry of Justice is prosecuting the case, the Minister of Human Rights and Transitional Justice has openly criticized the decision to jail journalists rather than sanction the paper, and even the country's best-known Islamist, Rached Ghannouchi, founder of the Al-Nahda Party, has said he opposed the arrest. (He's not defending the picture, but criticizing jailing a journalist.)

I don't know if there is any single lesson to be derived from all this, except that the whole issue of what is and what is not permissible in the public sphere is being debated and that there are likely to be more such controversies.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

You Say You Want a Revolution? I've Got a Subway Line for You.

I am one of those lingering optimists who still thinks the Egyptian revolution has brought real, if still far from complete, change, but I know that there are many who feel the old regime has essentially ridden out the revolution and is returning to business as usual.

But not to worry: the Revolution is secure! The new, third line of the Cairo Metro, running from Midan Ataba to Midan Abbasiyya, will be officially named the Revolution line!

That's a relief.

Whole Run of ZDMG to 2005 Available Online, Open Source

The great-granddaddy of European Orientalist scholarly journals, the Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, or ZDMG to its friends, is now available online from the University of Halle, free and open source, from Volume I in 1847 (!) up to 2005. This will mean little to the vast majority of my readers, but to an old medieval Islamicist like myself it's great to know. Back in 1847 it wasn't scholarship if it wasn't in German, but in the 20th century a fair number of articles in English and French start to be included as well.

Marie Colvin, Another Western Journalist Die in Syria

The deaths of Marie Colvin of the London Sunday Times and of a French photographer in Syria, coming so soon after the unexpected death of Anthony Shadid (though he died of an asthma attack, not from gunfire), naturally helps focus attention on the carnage in Syria. One can, of course, and should, note that over 5,000 Syrians have died at the hands of the Asad government (and probably many more), and that their names have not made the headlines. But the role of the foreign media in calling attention to what is going on despite Syrian government determination to keep the media out is an example of the role foreign correspondents can play, despite the risks. Journalists operating in Syria without government sanction are risking all to get the story out, and are a credit to their profession.

FJP Declares Support for NGOs

Egypt's Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood's Political Arm, has issued a declaration supporting the work of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) working for democracy in Egypt and has called for the lifting of all restrictions on their registration and operations.

This is the latest of several posiions which distances the FJP from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and seems shrewd: it seemingly positions the party on the side of democratization and, not so incidentally, is a gesture to the US on this issue (they recently met with Sen. John McCain), even though many Brotherhood positions are at odds with US policies in the region. Though I am not a great admirer of the Brotherhood and believe their democratic rhetoric needs to be judged by what they actually deliver in power, this is a reminder that they are far more attuned to the political vibrations of the moment than the remarkably tone-deaf SCAF. It's also a sign, I think, that the FJP, after working closely with SCAF for a year, is now preparing for a struggle to give the Parliament real power vis-a-vis SCAF.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Lynch on Syria for CNAS

Marc Lynch has a new report out from CNAS on Syria, urging diplomatic but not military intervention. It's a thoughtful contribution to the ongoing debate. (Summary page at the link, full PDF here.)

Yemen's One-Man Election

Yemen is having Presidential elections today. On the one hand, for the first time in some years, there's only one name on the ballot. On the other hand, for the first time since 1978 (!), ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih is not on the ballot. Danya Greenfield at Foreign Policy suggests "Yemen's Election Might Matter." And here's the ballot in case you need time to make up your mind:

A Photo from Homs: Dangerous Neighborhood

Homs. From a Facebook album.  There are far bloodier and gorier photos, of course. But this one says a lot.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Some Cairo Vignettes for a Three-Day Weekend

This is the beginning of the three-day President's Day weekend in the US and I'll only be checking in if circumstances demand.

To help keep you occupied, at least those of you who are old Cairo hands or are interested in the region's biggest city, here are a number of vignettes relating to various aspects of the city, from a variety of sources (though a majority are from the great CairObserver website):

Al-Horriya Cafe/Bar.  Here's a piece from the Guardian website on a place known to many old Cairo hands. Al-Horriya is a classic old Cairo coffeehouse, complete with mirrors on the walls, backgammon and domino games etc. But it has an additional attraction that used to be more common in Cairo coffeehouses but has become scarce: it serves beer. On Midan Falaki, it's only a few blocks from the AUC downtown campus and well known to lots of expatriates. I understand they've remodeled lately; I hope that doesn't mean your glass no longer sticks to the tables.

Uruba Palace/Former Heliopolis Palace Hotel. Gamal Abdel Nasser lived in a modest home while President and many of the old royal palaces became museums. Anwar Sadat was having none of that and began assembling a number of Presidential palaces for various roles. The old Heliopolis Palace Hotel was transformed into the Uruba Palace, which, in Husni Mubarak's day, became Mubarak's chief residence. CairObserver has photos from its earlier incarnation as a luxury hotel, and notes that a government commission is now surveying the Presidential Palaces, raising questions about where the new President to be elected in May will reside.

Al-Hakim Mosque. At the north end of the old Fatimid city, up against the northern walls of the city, lies the huge Mosque of al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah. A masterpiece of medieval architecture, under Sadat it was renovated (by the South Asian sect of Bohra Ismailis); CairObserver celebrates it today as "a place to idle."

The City of the Dead. Another CairObserver piece notes the showing in Cairo of a recent film on the City of the Dead, the name often applied to the great eastern and southern cemeteries on the edges of the old city, where many people live among the tombs. As the article notes, the film exaggerates the number of residents. The trailer is, however, on YouTube and may be of interest.

Graffiti After the Football Catastrophe. Graffiti on the walls of Cairo's streets has been one of the great artistic expressions of the Revolution, and though the authorities keep repainting it, the ubiquity of telephone cameras has guaranteed a great deal of documentation of what has been, however briefly, created. Some is high art; some creative protest; some funny; some just rabble-rousing or rude. The blogger who goes by suzeeinthecity has been among those collecting photos of the graffiti on her website; she has also interviewed some of the better-known street artists. Her latest post is on the graffiti of the Ahly Ultras that went up after the Port Said football catastrophe, though you may want to browse through some of the earlier collections as well. The whole subject of revolutionary graffiti is probably going to produce some Ph.D. dissertations down the road, I suspect;

Enjoy the long weekend if you have it; I'll check in as needed and resume regular blogging on Tuesday.

MEI Remembers Anthony Shadid

MEI now has a few reminiscences up remembering Anthony Shadid. Everyone in the field is in a state of shock today, I think. A truly great loss.

The "New Syrian Constitution"

Syria's announcement a couple of days ago that it would hold a referendum on a new constitution does not seem to have convinced many people that any real change is afoot; after all the following day the best-known dissident blogger, Razan al-Ghazzawi, was arrested again, and no one can comprehend how you hold a referendum on two weeks' notice in the midst of a near civil war.

The past year has seen plenty of examples of dictators promising reforms that are too little, too late, and merely symbolic. Daniel Serwer labeled the attempt "bizarre."

I should note, however, that there was some substantive discussion of the proposed constitution over at Syria Comment a couple of days ago, and you can read the full text (in Arabic) of the proposed new constitution here, if you're so inclined. None of which changes the likelihood that this particular proposal is pretty much dead on arrival.

NYT, WP on Anthony Shadid

I noted the shocking news of Anthony Shadid's sudden death last night. The New York Times obit now has links to his most recent articles. And The Washington Post, where he worked until moving to the Times, has its own appreciation. I think he was probably the best US Middle East correspondent of this generation. The blogging community will be full of appreciations today.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Anthony Shadid Dies in Syria

Shockingly, The New York Times has just reported that Anthony Shadid has died in Syria while on an assignment in eastern Syria, apparently of an asthma attack. His photographer took his body across the border into Turkey. He was only 43. Though he had been held by government forces while reporting from Libya last year, ironically he died not from hostile action but from asthma.

Shadid was one of the best journalists covering the Middle East; an Arab-American who spoke the language, he also showed real understanding of the region. Twice winner of Pultizers, he covered the region for The Washington Post before moving to The New York Times.

This is a shocking loss.

A Far Cry from 1956: Port Said Shunned, Ostracized by Other Egyptians

Since the football massacre in Port Said at the beginning of this month, the Suez Canal city has found itself the subject of opprobrium from the rest of the country, taking the brunt of the blame for the disaster in which 74 people died, though others place the blame on the security forces' inaction or the Ultras from both teams. The result has been a boycott of Port Said, leaving shops and coffeehouses deserted, and the city struggling economically to the point that the government has sent in supply convoys from Cairo. Details are provided by Ahram Online here, and earlier and with more details on Port Said in the Mubarak era, by blogger Zeinobia here. As Zeinobia notes, blaming the whole city for the football massacre seems extreme.

Both of these accounts note, and quote Port Said residents as also noting, that it was not always so. Port Said was long celebrated as the city at the center of resistance to the Anglo-French landings to seize the Suez Canal during the Suez War of 1956; Port Said resisted fiercely and became a patriotic symbol across Egypt to resistance to the "Tripartite Aggression" of Britain, France and Israel.

Later, after Israel occupied Sinai and the eastern bank of the Canal in 1967, the three Canal Cities (Port Said, Ismailia, Suez) became the front line. During the "War of Attrition" of 1967-71, Israel and Egypt exchanged artillery fire across the Canal until the Canal Cities were depopulated and largely destroyed.

After Israel withdrew from the Canal after the 1973 War and the Kissinger shuttles, the Canal Cities were rebuilt; under Anwar Sadat Port Said became a free trade zone and prospered. Under Mubarak the city did not do so well, and now, with the boycott, finds itself ostracized by the rest of the country.

To evoke a little of the memory of the 1956 invasion, however, here are two YouTube videos: one an Egyptian tribute to the city showing the resistance to the invaders (some scenes look staged and romanticized); the second is a British newsreel of Anglo-French occupation forces in Port Said after its fall.

Kuwaiti Parliament Meets; More on Election Results

Veteran political figure Ahmad al-Sa‘doun has been chosen Speaker of the newly elected Kuwaiti Parliament; he has held the post several times previously.

As I've noted before, I haven't really followed the Kuwaiti elections, so I've been offering links to others' analyses. Here are two more: at The Gulf Blog; and Kristian Coates Ulrichsen at HurstBlog.

UAE Looking for Markets for Locally Built Missile Corvettes?

According to this story in The National,  the UAE is looking for possible foreign markets for Baynunah-class corvettes being built by Abu Dhabi Ship Building in partnership with France's CMN. The UAE is building six of the missile corvettes for its own Navy, The article mentions Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as possible markets.

For more on the class and its capabilities, see here.

The GCC Navies have all been eager to build up their capabilities in recent years, with an eye on Iran.

Tehran in Other Times

A photo essay at Foreign Policy on Iran in the 1960s and 1970s, the Westernizing heyday of the Shah. This sort of nostalgia can be fun so long as one remembers that there were fundamental problems under the Western veneer, problems that led to the Revolution and all that followed.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Evanescence of a Social Media Revolution: A Year Later, 10% of Data, Images are Missing

 As someone whose discipline is history, I have naturally wondered about how the history of the past year will be written. At first glance the vast library of YouTube videos, live tweets as events transpired, cell-phone photos of events from hundred of sources, etc. would seem to mean the revolutions would have been well documented.

But endurance of these media may be an issue. Here's an important article I think: "Losing My Revolution: A year after the Egyptian Revolution, 10% of the social media documentation is gone." Using several aggregation sites, Storify, etc., a test study showed that up to 10% of the content, especially photos and videos, is no longer available. And that's after only a year.

This raises some interesting questions for digital archivists. I commended it to historians, techie geeks of various stripes, and anyone with an interest in social media.

Egypt to Elect President in May

 It's official: Egypt will hold Presidential elections in May, a month ahead of the June deadline previously set. The exact date will be set by the elections committee. (It may be worth noting that the SCAF's Advisory Committee recommended May 16.) Candidacy registration will open March 10 for three weeks, followed by 45 days of campaigning, which would again point to a mid-May date.

As the details flesh out, I'll comment at much greater length.

NYT: Is Fayza Abu'l-Naga Challenging SCAF?

This New York Times article is portraying Egypt's Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Fayza Abu'l-Naga's campaign against foreign NGOs as being carried out in defiance even of the Military Council. In this view, authority is increasingly divided and the Minister appears to be alienating the US without the approval of SCAF. I am, frankly, skeptical.

I know SCAF has shown plenty of signs of disorganization, internal division, and incompetence, but that doesn't mean it's powerless. If the Minister of International Cooperation can alienate a key ally/aid donor unilaterally, why has every other Minister in the Cabinet, including Prime Minister Ganzouri, seemed to ask SCAF's permission  before every statement? Admittedly, the alternative — that SCAF itself is behind the campaign against NGOs — requires assuming a level of Machiavellian scheming (pledging good relations when Field Marshal Tantawi meets General Dempsey, while pursuing the NGOs at the same time) that raises plenty of questions, too.

I think the NYT article could be the correct reading, but I frankly doubt it. I'd guess (and it is just a guess) that SCAF is gambling that it can play the popular "foreign interference" card domestically (and remove annoying democracy activists in the process) without losing the US aid package, calculating that the US military values the strategic relationship too much to jeopardize it. I suspect that may in fact be true of some in the US military, but they don't make US policy in an election year, a factor SCAF may be badly underestimating.

On the other hand, I can easily imagine the generals leaking to the NYT the "fact" that they just can't control this rogue crazy woman in the Planning Ministry, so don't blame them for what's happening, blame her. But again, I'm not there; I'm going on experience and instinct, and could be wrong.

On Syria and Sectarianism: Josh Landis' and Qifa Nabki's Exchange

I don't even try to link to the vast literature accumulating on the Syrian problem; it's everywhere. But one very interesting exchange has been under way at Elias Muhanna's Qifa Nabki blog, between Josh Landis of Syria Comment and Elias, thus giving us a Syria expert and a Lebanon expert discussing sectarianism, with Nadim Shehadi of Chatham House chiming in, too. The question was whether Syria risked descending into sectarian civil war like Lebanon and Iraq. But I won't try to summarize it. Starting in response to this TV interview with Landis and several others, Elias posted this commentary, which in turn provoked responses from Landis and Shehadi, and then a clarification from Landis. [UPDATE: And another round from Shehadi.] I find it the sort of conversation the blogosphere is very good at generating, at least when the participants are as well-informed as these guys.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Bahrain: The Anniversary

Lest we forget more serious matters amid all the Valentine's Day cheer, today is not all red hearts and cupids: it's also the first anniversary of Bahrain's protests, Protesters tried to march to the former Pearl Roundabout, symbol of the protest movement, but were blocked by massive police presence. Both clashes and peaceful protests were reported. Updates and videos here. Al Jazeera English report here. And BBC's take here.

Ahram: "Love in the Time of Revolution"

Ahram Online's Valentine's Day feature: "Love in the Time of Revolution," on ways to mark romance after a year of revolution. Salafi opposition to the holiday is noted only in passing.

Suggested Arab Lit Readings for Valentine's Day

Undeterred by the latest attempts by Saudi religious leaders to ban not just Valentine's Day but even the color red today lest someone get ideas, Marcia Lynx Qualey at the Arabic Literature (in English) blog offers suggested readings (love stories, poetry, etc.) from Arabic Literature (in English, of course) for Valentine's Day.

Further Confusion on SCAF Membership

Yet another name has turned up identified as a member of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), according to a website that tries to track such things. As I noted here previously, for a body exercising the supreme executive authority in Egypt, it's surprising how hard it is to find agreement on precisely who the members of SCAF are: "official" lists originally showed 14 or 15 members, bur at least 22 different names have appeared on varying lists.

They could, of course, post the names to their website or Facebook page, but then the foreign agents seeking to undermine the revolution would find out. When the military delegation was in Washington recently trying to explain the NGO campaign, I wonder if anyone asked them for a list? Of course the US (along with our usual allies, Israel and Iran) are all behind the Freemasons' plot against Egypt anyway. Or something like that.

LA Times: Valentine's Day in Karbala

To start your Valentine's day* off on a proper note (*offer not valid in Iran or Saudi Arabia or other places where Valentine's Day is or may soon be prohibited by law or the religious police), here's an LA Times piece with a photo of Valentine's Day in the Iraqi Holy City of Karbala, with women in full abaya shopping amidst the Valentine decorations.. Since I suspect the LA Times employs lots of copyright lawyers I won't reproduce the photo here, but will urge you to see the photo at the link. A hat tip to old Iraq hand Ambassador David Mack for this one. And a Happy Valentine's Day to you and yours.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Arrests, Release Briefly Remind Us of Mahalla's Labor Unrest

Since 2008, the big Egyptian Delta industrial textile factory town of Mahalla has been the scene of persistent labor unrst and strikes. Some Egyptian activists feel it helped give birth to the Revolution (the April 6 Movement traces its birth to events in Mahalla), but it has not become as iconic as Tahrir Square, mostly because the current regime, like Mubarak's before it, has kept a sort of cordon sanitaire around the city, keeping out foreigners, journalists, photographers and others who might ask the wrong questions. It famously got some attention when an American activist was arrested there and used Twitter to contact the US Embassy. It is getting attention once again because an Australian journalist and a US student were arrested and held there for two days during an attempt to launch a nationwide general strike February 11, to mark the first anniversary of Mubarak's fall. They were released today.

With the bloodshed in Syria, it is little surprise Mahalla gets only fleeting attention from the outside world, and that only when a foreign national is involved. But the longer-term condition of Egypt may have more to do with whether any new government can improve the condition of Egypt's impoverished workers, including the textile workers in the big cotton mills of Mahalla, than whether SCAF shuts an NGO or the Muslim Brotherhood bans bikinis. (Cue something militant by Woody Guthrie in the background music.)

Former Algerian Army Chief During Troubles is Dead

The man who was at one time the real military power in Algeria during the Troubles of the 1990s, General Mohammed Lamari, has died at age 73, reportedly of a heart attack. (Link is in French. An English bio here.)

Lamari was Commander of Ground Forces in 1992 when the Army forced President Chadli Bendjedid from office, sparking the long fight between Islamist movements and the state that wracked Algeria throughout the 1990s. The following year,2003, he became Armed Forces Chief of Staff. He had earlier formed a special counterterrorist unit and became known as a hardliner opposed to negotiation or compromise. He was considered close to President Liamine Zeroual.

In 2004, a few months after Abdelaziz Bouteflika assumed the Presidency, Lamari "retired," "for health reasons," though most have seen it as Bouteflika's effort to weaken the Army's power.

Lamari had begun his military career as a cavalryman in the French Army, only joining the independence struggle in 1961, the year before independence.

Syrian Scenarios: Are There Any Real Options?

You probably already are tiring about the online debate over what to do about Syria: intervention? No-fly zones? Safe havens? Duty to protect? Arm the Free Syrian Army? With the US military now studying its options, every online armchair strategist from the "82nd Chairborne Division" is weighing in. So I might as well chime in.  Let's start with a few basic principles that, I think, are always worth keeping in mind.

1. When you're in an ordnance factory, don't be too quick to start shooting. Syria does not reside, as Qadhafi's Libya did, in splendid isolation. Iran, and Hizbullah in Lebanon, are profoundly invested in the Syrian regime. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey are increasingly invested n the opposition. Israel will not stand idly by while the whole region goes up. Lesson: unless you understand the whole regional equation, don't shoot any Austrian Archdukes.

2. When you have a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail, but not every humanitarian crisis is amenable to a military resolution.

3. Syria is not Libya. It is not Bosnia. It is not Kossovo. (And have you looked at Libya recently?)

Late last year there was much more talk of direct military intervention by the West or the UN (that, of course, is out due to the Russian and Chinese vetoes). The neoconservative advocates of neoimperial intervention and the humanitarian "duty to protect" advocates seemed to be coming together in their eagerness to do something about the horrors appearing daily on YouTube.

The debate about what to do has changed a bit sine then, and I won't try to rehash everything that has gone before. The calls for Western (US, UN, NATO) military intervention have weakened as even the most interventionist commentators realize the limitations of direct external intervention, no-fly zones, safe havens, and such. Logistically and in terms of regional escalation, it's really not very feasible.  The newer mantra seems to be "Arm the Free Syrian Army." It's not just hawks like Elliott Abrams and John McCain who are advocating this, though they've been among the most vocal. On the opposite side, I think Marc Lynch has been quite coherent in expressing some of the problems arising from this call: the inability of the opposition forces to unite, the local nature of the resistance, the uncertain leadership. At one point he called the Free Syrian Army "basically a fax machine in Turkey," which may be an oversimplification, but the Syrian opposition is hardly a cohesive force under centralized command. See Nir Rosen here as well.

Arming a non-centralized, multi-focused opposition that varies from locality to locality raises some problems. It's approximately what the US and Pakistan did in arming the Afghan mujahdin against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. (Well, it did get rid of the Soviets, but with some unintended consequences.)

Then, the question is, what do you arm them with? Another cool head here is (not surprisingly, an actual military expert), Andrew Exum. His "The Order of Battle Problem," gets to the key point: Syria has 4,950 main battle tanks, 2,440 BMPs and 1,500 other APCs, 3,440 artillery pieces and 600,000 men under arms. So:
Now, for the sake of argument, let's say Syria can only field half of the above equipment and personnel due to maintenance issues and defections or whatever. We're still talking about a ridiculous amount of advanced weaponry. What arms, then, are we talking about giving these guerrilla groups? Nukes?
If Western intervention is out and arming the Free Syrian Army may not work, there are still some murmurs about a regional intervention by Turkey and the Arab League. This article in The National offers a daring vision:
The best-case scenario would be a two-front war. On the northern front, the Turkish army would push south to take Aleppo and sever Damascus's links to the Syrian Mediterranean region (which contains a large Alawite population). This would reduce the likelihood of a repeat of the battle of Sirte, where Qaddafi loyalists held out for several weeks after the fall of Tripoli.
On the southern front, a combined Jordanian-GCC force would take Al Harisa and Shahba, before pushing on to Damascus. The rationale is based on low population density. The Syrian military may have units that are better trained in defensive asymmetric warfare, which would fortify themselves in urban environments, having learnt from the experience of Hizbollah in Lebanon. The southern approaches to Damascus are relatively flat, supported by a road network and have a lower population density, allowing a mobile offensive that avoided urban areas and minimised civilian casualties.
Please. It may be fun to wargame, but does anyone who knows anything about the balance of military forces in the area and the traditional mindsets of these states really believe a Jordanian-GCC invasion force is likely to appear? Although Qatar and Bahrain are very gung ho on intervention (Bahrain because "Asad is waging war on his own people," which some Bahrainis would say their own government is doing as well), a "Jordanian-GCC" force would be in effect a Jordanian-Saudi force. Yeah, that's going to happen.

And, of course, the pipe dream in the quotation above seems to assume that Iran (and Israel, and Hizbullah) will stand aside and watch.

I'm glad at least that the idea of direct Western intervention has faded as advocates realize the genuine military obstacles and potential complications; and for all the imagination in the paragraphs above, the GCC will fund the opposition but won't, if the last, oh, 80 years of history are any clue, actually engage in a full-scale ground intervention.

There are a few other voices, of course, crying in the wilderness, like Dan Serwer's "Yes, Nonviolence Even Now,".

The horrors being inflicted on Homs will, I think, ultimately ensure the fall of the Asad regime, but not tomorrow or the day after. The growing military strength of the resistance is apparent, but its lack of heavy weaponry is a major impediment, though as the Afghan mujahidin demonstrated, that can be overcome. But Afghanistan is a cautionary tale about arming a disorganized and decentralized resistance. Syria is descending into a civil war. If I were convinced any of the scenarios proposed would bring about a stable solution I'd support them, but all seem to be riddled with minefields. The dangers of a much broader regional war are increasingly real, and such a war would involve global implications, including disruptions in oil supply at a time of fragile economic recovery in the US and grave uncertainty about European economies. Caution, despite the horrors of Homs, would seem to be in order.

Friday, February 10, 2012

May Ziadeh's Birthday

Tomorrow, February 11, marks the birthday of May Ziadeh (Mai Ziade, etc.)(1886-1941), pioneering writer, feminist, and literary figure of the Arab literary awakening of the early 20th century. Born in Nazareth of a Lebanese Maronite father and a Palestinian mother, she was educated in Palestine and Lebanon and later presided over a famous literary salon in cairo, though Lebanon tends to claim her as its own.  She wrote poetry, romantic novels, criticism, nonfiction and other works but is also known for her salon. She never married but kept up a famous 19-year literary correspondence with Khalil Gibran in New York, though they never met in person.

Here's her Wikipedia entry; a rather more detailed site in English devoted to her life and work is here.

UPDATE: Arabic Literature (in English) noticed, too, but with excerpts.

Gandhi in Egypt, 1931

Okay, here's one I hadn't heard of: Gandhi's visit to Egypt, 1931. From a 2002 Al-Ahram article, posted by the Indian Embassy in Cairo. He was greeted by Egyptians as a symbol of resistance to British rule.

Asma al-Asad's "Website": Hacked or Fake?

I suspect this is a fake,  since I don't seem able to find a cache of a legitimate Asma al-Asad website that might have been hacked, but it's worth noting anyway even if it's just a parody and not a hack:

Could Madonna Provide Peace till Summer?

My previous post may have come from The Onion, but despite what you'd think, this one doesn't: it's actually from Haaretz: "Israeli Fans Ask PM to Hold Off Iran Attack over Madonna Show." There's a Facebook Page asking Bibi not to attack Iran until after May 29 so as not to interfere with her concert.Unless it's a gag, the page is here (my Hebrew's pretty poor but it says "Bibi: No! No war with Iran until after the Madonna concert." And some of the posts are in English).And the Facebook page contains this picture as well:

I have to admit, this would be the most talked-about surprise attack in history if it does take place.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Onion: Iran Fears US Could Be Near Building 8,500th Nuclear Weapon

 It is, of course, The Onion. But there is a point here.
TEHRAN—Amidst mounting geopolitical tensions, Iranian officials said Wednesday they were increasingly concerned about the United States of America's uranium-enrichment program, fearing the Western nation may soon be capable of producing its 8,500th nuclear weapon. "Our intelligence estimates indicate that, if it is allowed to progress with its aggressive nuclear program, the United States may soon possess its 8,500th atomic weapon capable of reaching Iran," said Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi, adding that Americans have the fuel, the facilities, and "everything they need" to manufacture even more weapons-grade fissile material. "Obviously, the prospect of this happening is very distressing to Iran and all countries like Iran. After all, the United States is a volatile nation that's proven it needs little provocation to attack anyone anywhere in the world whom it perceives to be a threat." Iranian intelligence experts also warned of the very real, and very frightening, possibility of the U.S. providing weapons and resources to a rogue third-party state such as Israel.