A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Moor on MUJWA

Kal at The Moor Next Door has a lengthy piece on the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), which has been playing a role in the events in northern Mali and whose exact relationship with Al-Qa‘ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is still a bit murky. An important piece I think for anyone interested in jihadist movements, the Maghreb, Sahara, or Sahel, etc.

And a reminder that his blog is a good resource for North Africa generally but especially for Algeria and Mauritania, as well as, increasingly, the whole Azawad separatist conflict.

Sinai Kidnapping of US Tourists May Draw More Attention to Growing Anarchy

The kidnapping of two US tourists from near Dahab on the "Sinai riviera" is only the most recent in a long string of tourist kidnappings in Sinai, mostly aimed at forcing the Egyptian government to release prisoners or to concede other demands. Though CNN has confirmed through an interview with one of them that the two tourists were still in custody despite Egyptian claims they had been released, they probably will be released safely, as was the case with two other Americans in February. But the US media has paid little attention to the continuing wave of abductions of tourists, most of them not from the US.

Since the withdrawal of police during the Egyptian revolution, Sinai has increasingly become a Wild West no-man's-land where increasingly radical Islamist and jihadi groups are operating freely in some cases operating from a core of former prisoners who escaped during the revolution and have been operating in Sinai, drawing recruits from long-disgruntled local Bedouin tribes who have long felt neglected by Cairo. Not all these incidents, however, involve radical groups; some are simply tribal vendettas, and the current case is reportedly aimed at freeing a tribesman arrested for drug offenses.

The fact that Sinai is the crucial buffer between Egypt and Israel and that incidents along the border, including rocket attacks inside Israel, have occurred has raised the danger of a major confrontation with Israel. Under the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Egypt is limited in how many military troops it can deploy, but there has been cooperation in the past on security in Sinai, though Israel has also warned that it will protect its border security unilaterally if necessary.

The security of Sinai is, along with the economic crisis, sure to be high on the agenda of Egypt's incoming President.

SCAF Lifts State of Emergency in Egypt

Egypt's State of Emergency, in continuous force for nearly 31 years, will end at midnight tonight, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has announced, SCAF has also "reassured" the country that it will maintain security until the handover of power June 30.

The State of Emergency, which has been in force since the assassination of Anwar Sadat, has provided the legal justification for a wide range of measures, including trying civilians in military courts.

Though most headlines are emphasizing that the Emergency lasted 31 years, in fact Egypt was also under a State of Emergency from the June 1967 War until after the original Camp David accords. That was lifted in 1980, but some 18 months later Sadat was assassinated in October 1981. So except for that 18-month period, Egypt has been under an Emergency for 45 years.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The River Jordan: Neither Mighty Nor Wide

In my post earlier today about Doc Watson, I joked that about the only connection I could find to link him to the Middle East was that some of the spirituals he sang occasionally (and perhaps only on one album: it certainly wasn't his main type of music) had references to the River Jordan.

This brings up an issue which may be unfamiliar to many of my Middle Eastern readers: the symbolism of the River Jordan in American gospel music, whether black or white in origin, in which the Jordan symbolizes salvation (or in some of the black hymns, freedom). The Jordan's Biblical importance, as the entrance to the Promised Land which Moses was not allowed to cross; as the river across which the Chariot carried Elijah into the next world; and as the place where John the Baptist baptized Jesus and where Jesus himself baptized others; all contribute to its power as a symbol, in hymns written by pious Christians who've never seen the real river Lyrics like this are common:
Oh, the Jordan River is Mighty and Wide;
Long Time Getting to the Other Side
As those who've seen it know, it's neither, and it isn't, if you exclude having to clear passport control where it's a border.

Western Christians, especially evangelicals and other Protestants who were raised on the old-time spirituals, are often surprised.to see the real river. They expect something like the Nile or the Tigris (or since they haven't seen those either, the Mississippi) and they encounter what in the US would not even merit the title of a river, but rather a steam or a creak or a run or a branch. Middle Easterners, I suspect, even Middle Eastern Christians, aren't familiar with this mostly Protestant traditional symbolism. Yet still it seems hard to cross when it is a symbol of crossing to the afterlife: 
And I'll be waiting on the far side banks of Jordan
I'll be waiting drawing pictures in the sand
And when I see you coming I will rise up with a shout
And come running through he shallow waters reaching for your hand.
Those that treat the Jordan as a symbol of death and salvation often refer to it as cold:
Now look at that cold Jordan
Look at these deep waters
Look at that wide river 
Oh hear the mighty billows roar

You'd better take Jesus with you
He's a true companion
For I'm sure without Him
That you never will make it o'er
Or this couplet, which appears in many spirituals:
Oh, the River Jordan is chilly and cold'
It chills the body, but not the soul
It's not just American spirituals; there's the English tradition of Isaac Watts and the Wesleys which uses similar imagery, as in Watts' There is a Land of Pure Delight:
Could we climb where Moses stood
And view the landscape o'er
Not Jordan's stream, nor
death's cold flood
Should fright us from the shore
None of this has anything to do with the river called Yarden or Al-Urdunn, and everything to do with religious symbolism: some of the traditional Christmas carols also are ignorant of the real geography ("Born a King on Bethlehem's plain" hardly describes Bethlehem), but they are so inculcated in English and American culture that many pilgrims are disappointed to see the real river.

Sometimes, though, the spirituals acknowledge it isn't the earthly Jordan they speak of:

Roll Jordan, roll
Roll Jordan, roll
I want to go to heav'n when I die
To hear ol' Jordan roll

Doc Watson, Who Had Nothing to Do With the Middle East, Has Died at 89

Back in March when Earl Scruggs died, I tried hard to think of a connection with the Middle East so I could put it on this blog. Now that we've lost another of the pioneers of Bluegrass music, Doc Watson, who died yesterday at 89, I'm trying again. Other than a conversation I've been having with Hisham Milhem about Doc Watson on Twitter, I haven't succeeded. He covered a lot of old Gospel spirituals and some of them must have mentioned the River of Jordan, though not in the manner of anyone who's ever actually crossed it. So if those aren't enough justification, please indulge me in a non-Middle East post.

Of all the types of American "roots" music, Bluegrass is unusual in that much of the music is very old — Child ballads, old mountain songs, blues, spirituals, etc. — but reworked in a way that sounds very traditional but is played in a style that was really fashioned in the 20th century by Bill Monroe. Watson, who was blind since infancy, is a traditional player who became an icon of Bluegrass and one of the greatest guitar pickers ever, despite his blindness. With his passing so soon after that of Banjo great Earl Scruggs, I can only assume the Almighty has decided to convert the Angelic Choirs over to Bluegrass (Bill Monroe's probably been lobbying for it since his death in 1996). Once Scruggs got there the Lord said, we've got the mandolin and the banjo, but we need a great guitar . . .

This video (which you should watch even if you think you don't like Bluegrass: it might change your mind) includes both Watson and Scruggs (Watson on guitar and Scruggs on banjo of course), along with Ricky Skaggs on mandolin and Alison Krauss on fiddle (and everybody sings). Bluegrass royalty, two of them now gone, doing an old standard, "Banks of the Ohio":

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

In the Wake of Houla, What Next for Syria and the World?

The massacre at Houla last Friday has shocked the world; though the Syrian regime denies complicity, the deaths of at least 49 children, along with many more men and women, in the rebel town was clearly committed by some force opposed to the uprising, and the sheer, deliberate horror of it has horrified almost everyone. The world has responded with vigor and force.

No, just kidding. They sent Kofi Annan yet again.
Annan has said that Syria is at "a tipping point," and has come to the stunning conclusion that the UN peace plan isn't working. But we knew that already, apparently before he did.

The world fired the other barrel of its outrage today, kicking out senior diplomats from Syrian Embassies in Western capitals. (Kill children and we may have to declare your diplomats persona non grata. Not break relations, mind you, just PNG some diplomats.)

I have long been ambivalent about Western military intervention in Syria, as I noted most recently at some length here. I don't believe you undertake military action without a clear plan for achieving a defined objective. And I am not at all sure that outside intervention, even regional intervention (though the likelihood of the latter seems remote despite rhetoric). And I know that "we" — the US, the West, NATO, whoever — cannot realistically police the world, and some will say, why Syria and not Darfur, or northern Mali, or other places in need of order?

But Syria is a critically important country, a sort of keystone of the Levant; a prolonged sectarian conflict in Syria would not remain in Syria alone; lately the Syrian violence has already spread to Tripoli in Lebanon, and will spread further if it deepens. The troubles already preoccupy Iran and Hizbullah and could be drawn into the growing Iran-Israel tensions, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states see Syria in sectarian terms and increasingly see themselves as defenders of the Sunni world.

I'm not sure what the world can or should do. But I'm increasingly sure the answer is not to keep sending Kofi Annan.

Cause for Concern: Blaming the Copts for Shafiq

I'm working on a number of longer posts on the implications of the Egyptian elections, but one particular theme that has emerged in recent days is cause for serious concern: a tendency on the part of some Islamists and also secular liberals and others to blame Egypt's Coptic Christians for the resurrection of Ahmad Shafiq's political career.

The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights has urged the Attorney General to investigate statements by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party that seemed to blame Copts for Shafiq's running second and thus making it into the runoff; FJP candidate Muhammad Morsi is one of those whose remarks it cited, but today Morsi sought to reassure Christians, saying "Our Christian brothers, let's be clear, are national partners and have full rights like Muslims,"and promising Copts would be included as advisers in his Presidency and that the Vice President, who would not be from the FJP, might also be a Copt.

The FJP's Facebook page had earlier quoted losing Presidential candidate Muhammad al-Ashal as linking the Copts to Shafiq's "mysterious" rise, and many Christian activists have suggested the blame campaign is aimed at intimidating Copts from voting for Shafiq in round two.

But it isn't just the Brotherhood and other Islamist movements who have been blaming the Copts. So have liberals and revolutionaries who feel the Copts should have supported liberal candidates rather than Shafiq. Liberal blogger/activist  "Sandmonkey" Mahmoud Salem has responded in a post called "Don't blame the Copts":
The Blame Game started immediately, and despite revolutionary infighting between the supporters of various revolutionary candidates that never quite made it, they all seem to agree on one point: The Copts ( also insert: The Church) have screwed the revolution over with their voting choice. It goes without saying that this rhetoric is very immature and dangerous for the Coptic population, and will lead to further polarization amidst the revolutionary ranks, and that they are better suited to finding out why that happened and try to court that vote, instead of entrenching that belief further. In reality, their choice of vote, while unfortunate, is very logical and should not be blamed for it, and to paint them as traitors after being the population that suffered the most after this revolution is nothing short of latent sectarianism and ignoring the facts.
He then reviews the history of Copts and the revolution. Whether the critics are liberals or Islamists, their analyses are based on a general impression that a large majority of Copts voted for Shafiq. While Salem quotes an estimate of 85% of Copts voting for the former Mubarak stalwart, not everyone agrees:
It is noteworthy that the largest portion of votes won by Shafiq came from the Nile Delta region, which does not contain a large Christian population.

As for other provinces where Coptic populations are concentrated, such as Cairo and Alexandria, the polls were led by Sabbahi, while Morsy finished first in Minya and Sohag.

Commentators say that it is a mistake to consider Copts as a politically unified electorate, and argue that Christians, like the rest of Egyptians, hold different political orientations varying according to social, economic and intellectual factors.
True, that comment appears in The Egypt Independent's report on the EOHR complaint, and the paper is affiliated with Al-Masry Al-Youm, which is ultimately part of the media empire of Naguib Sawiris, the media billionaire and outspoken Copt. But the point is that no one is sure what proportion of the Coptic vote went to Shafiq. Cairo, which has one of the country's biggest Coptic populations, went for Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi, (As for the Delta, which indeed has few Copts, it went so heavily for Shafiq because he carried Mubarak's old home base of Menufiyya overwhelmingly, with Sharqiyya and other Delta provinces close behind.)

The point should be, though, that even if Copts did indeed vote overwhelmingly for Shafiq, and even if that support was enough to catapult Shafiq to second place ahead of Sabahi (and this second premise s by no means proven either: there are many allegations of irregularities and questions about expanded voter rolls still in play), where else would the Coptic vote have gone. They were surely not going to vote for an Islamist; they may have to learn to live with one, but nothing in their recent experience suggests they will prosper under Islamist rule. As for the revolutionaries' complaint that they shou;d hjave voted for a "liberal" candidate, the simple answer is, which one was that? Of the 13 candidates, there were at most two or three real liberals, and they never had a chance: why throw away one's vote? Of the five candidates who, in the end, split the vote among them — Morsi, Shafiq, Moussa, Abu'l-Futuh, and Sabahi &emdash; only one, Abu'l-Futuh, claimed to be a liberal, and he was also pledged to implementing shari‘a and is a former Muslim Brother. Sabahi, the Nasserist, would have some appeal (and Copts generally remember the Nasser era favorably), and Sabahi does seem to have done well with Coptic voters. Of the two fallul (old regime) candidates, Moussa and Shafiq, Shafiq was the law-and-order man, and as Sandmonkey's analysis noted, the Copts have suffered multiple church-burnings and the Maspero killings since the revolution, and may be yearning for law and order. (Though insofar as Shafiq is really the candidate of Mubarak's old NDP elite, the Copts did not fare well in the last years of NDP rule.) He was hardly an ideal candidate,but he does have a logical appeal for a minority feeling increasingly besieged under the growing insecurity and Islamist activism since the revolution.

If Copts did vote overwhelmingly for Shafiq, they presumably did so as individual voters with individual political views and priorities, but also with concern for the security of their own religious community. Also, presumably, the motivations behind those who voted for Morsi. Any attempt during the runoff campaign to paint Copts as either a threat to Islam (which is ludicrous given their minority numbers) or to the revolution (which has hardly been pro-active in defending Coptic rights) would merely increase the dangers of greater sectarian violence. Shafiq could not have gotten to the runoff with Coptic votes alone. If he's the candidate of anyone, it's SCAF and the old NDP business elites, plus the security services. Blame them if one must blame someone.

In any event, the runoff election is already the most polarizing choice imaginable: the Brotherhood versus someone widely seen as a Mubarak clone. Overlaying an already polarized and dangerous situation with a sectarian component throws fuel on a fire. Egyptians of all political and religious orientations will be ill-served by that.

No Such Thing As Starting Too Soon

I'm back from the three-day weekend and working on several things: obviously the aftermath in Egypt and the horrors in Syria among them. Expect longer posts later. Meanwhile, here's an Egyptian gentleman who isn't waiting for the runoff: "Down with the Next President!"

Monday, May 28, 2012

For Memorial Day: the US Military Cemetery, Carthage, Tunisia

US Battle Monuments Commission Photo
Twenty years ago or so, an airline check-in agent in Washington, noting my ticket was to Frankfurt and Tunis, asked me if Tunis was in Germany. Many hours later, taxiing into town from Tunis-Carthage airport, I saw the sign for the turnoff to the US Military Cemetery at Carthage, where 2,841 American military personnel lie fallen, victims of a somewhat forgotten campaign, buried near a city which at least one airline employee had not heard of.  The juxtaposition of events stuck in my mind. Of the 24 officially-maintained US Military Cemeteries overseas, there is only one in the Middle East and North Africa, the one at Carthage, Tunisia, for the dead of the North Africa campaign. As the American Battle Monuments Commission website notes:
At the 27-acre North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial in Tunisia rest 2,841 of our military dead, their headstones set in straight lines subdivided into nine rectangular plots by wide paths, with decorative pools at their intersections. Along the southeast edge of the burial area, bordering the tree-lined terrace leading to the memorial is the Wall of the Missing. On this wall 3,724 names are engraved. Rosettes mark the names of those since recovered and identified. Most honored here lost their lives in World War II in military activities ranging from North Africa to the Persian Gulf.
Though it is the only US military cemetery in the Middle East, the North Africa campaign of World War II was sadly neither our first war in the region ("...to the shores of Tripoli") nor our last, obviously. But on this day when Americans venerate their fallen of all wars, it seems an appropriate, if little-known, place to remember. Perhaps we do not remember the fighting in Tunisia because our first battle there, at Kasserine, was a disaster. Aside from the 1970 film Patton, Tunisia is little discussed.

 Here is the video from the American Battle Monuments Commission:

Added: Erik Churchill's Kefteji blog visits the Memorial Day ceremonies. 

For Memorial Day, for the fallen of all wars, Taps. Memorial Day began as a US holiday to remember what is still our bloodiest and most uncivil war, the Civil War, so I've always felt it appropriate to remember the fallen of both sides in war.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Three-Day Weekend

For those of you outside the US, you should know that this is the Memorial Day holiday weekend in the States, the traditional start of summer. Unless something major happens, I'll return to blogging on Tuesday.

The Unofficial Final Results, and Suggested Slogans for the Runoff

And the final breakdown is: Morsi 24.9%, Shafiq 24.5%, Sabahi 21.1% (he carried Cairo), then Abu'l-Futuh and Moussa.

A useful spreadsheet of the results is here. Put together by Iyad al-Baghdadi and others.

And here are my suggested slogans for the candidates:

Morsi: "Of course we believe in one man, one vote, The Supreme Guide is the man, and he has the vote."

Shafiq: "After 30 years under a corrupt ex-Air Force general, what Egypt needs is a corrupt ex-Air Force general. 30 More Years!"

Or the Short Version . . .

Assessing the Results While Avoiding Any "Dewey Defeats Truman" Headlines

Before I comment on the apparent results of the Egyptian elections, a couple of comments:
  1. First, Ahmad Shafiq's eligibility is still under court challenge, and he's also being investigated for corruption. If Shafiq were to be disqualified again (unlikely at this point, of course), the second round could look very different.
  2. All the published numbers are unofficial; they are leaks from various precincts or, in most cases,from the candidates' own poll-watchers. They're probably accurate, but they're unofficial.
Now having said that, the results have certainly proven that reliance on polls was unwise; as of now the two "front-runners" ran fourth and fifth. The runoff, if everything stands as it seems to now, will indeed be between an Islamist and a stalwart of the old regime, but not Abu'l-Futuh and Moussa; rather Morsi and Shafiq. And the third place, but running strongly and perhaps able to eke out second, is Hamdeen Sabahi. If these do prove to be the final results, this will be analyzed for a long time. With absolutely no firsthand evidence and sitting in Washington, I'm going to venture what can only be called guesses:
  1. Though Morsi was the Muslim Brotherhood's second choice, he ran first, well ahead of the supposed liberal-Islamist Abu'l-Futuh. Clearly the MB General Guide was able to maintain members' discipline and bring out the vote; just as clearly, despite endorsement of Abu'l-Futuh by the Salafi parties and groups, a lot of Salafis must have voted for Morsi. The Brotherhood proved that it is the real claimant to the Islamist title in Egypt, even running a second-string candidate.
  2. Shafiq was perhaps too easy to dismiss. Yes, he was even more the candidate of the old regime than Amr Moussa. He could have run on the motto "after 30 years under a corrupt ex-Air Force general, what Egypt needs is a corrupt ex-Air Force general." In a sense, perhaps he did: he was the law and order candidate, the end the disorder created by the revolution candidate. (The Bonapartist?) He definitely ran strong in the countryside, and in Mubarak's home governorate of Menufiyya, he lapped all the opposition put together.  But in addition to the stalwarts of the old regime, who are still around in plenty, he also was the (unofficial) candidate of the Copts, and of a lot of the non-Brotherhood countryside. 
  3. Hamdeen Sabahi, the Nasserist, apparently ran a very strong third and might still eke out second. Yet Sabahi had far less high-profile a campaign than the other contenders. In the end, a lot of liberals backed him (though a Nasserist is not a liberal). Sabshi's surprising performance needs more study, 
  4. Did Abu'l-Futuh and Moussa cancel each other out in their televised debate? Moussa tried to paint Abu'l-Futuh as a conventional Islamist. There was already some evidence that that hurt Abu'l-Futuh with his liberal supporters. Perhaps it also convinced Islamists to vote for the Islamist who wasn't pretending to be something else, Morsi. And Abu'l-Futuh painted Moussa as a stalwart of the old regime. Did many voters decide to vote for the regime stalwart who wasn;t pretending to be something else, Shafiq?
Assuming the runoff is between Morsi and Shafiq (assuming Shafiq is not belatedly disqualified, putting Sabahi in second place), a lot of the young revolutionaries are going to be disappointed: a choice between the Muslim Brotherhood and a younger version of Mubarak. But the Brotherhood itself is said to be worried that all the secularists and even some of the anti-Brotherhood Salafis could converge on the number two candidate in an "Anybody but Morsi" movement. That would have been certain if Abu'l-Futuh had run second, but can liberal revolutionaries and Salafis vote for Shafiq?

One final observation for now, though we'll be talking a lot more about this, I'm sure: it really turned out to be a five-man race. Though Morsi led strongly, he didn't lead everywhere, and each of the other four real contenders (the other eight candidates finishing far behind) competed for the number two slot at some point during the count. This was a real horse race, though the two front-runners will dismay many. But, of course, since there's no real constitution yet, we still don't know what powers the President will actually exercise.

And, with the runoff in mid-June, the race isn't over yet.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

It's Not Just Iran That Ties Itself in Knots Over the Name of the [Insert Name Here] Gulf

We often comment here on the ongoing "Name That Gulf!" controversy over the body of water between Iran and Arabia. Usually it's Iran that is saber-rattling because someone, somewhere has called the body of water something other than "Persian Gulf"; recently, when Google Maps simply refused to label the Gulf, they went ballistic about that, and still say they will sue Google.

The latest incident, though, is in Saudi Arabia, where the Alice Through the Looking Glass rules apply and you get in trouble for calling it Persian, in this case in an English writing exam at King Khaled Universiity in ‘Asir, The temporary contract professor chose a passage from a book, unaware that there is a decree in the Kingdom forbidding using texts that include the term.

Ayatollah Khomeini reportedly suggested "the Islamic Gulf." But does that mean that the Gulfs of, oh, just off the top of my head, Tunis, Hammamet, Gabes, Sidra, Suez, Aqaba, Aden, and Oman, are somehow less Islamic? (For Khomeini the answer may have been yes, but it does seem a bit all-inclusive.)

Since you get in trouble with somebody for calling it "Persian Gulf," "Arab Gulf," just "the Gulf," or, like Google, for not labeling it at all,  I will for now take my cue from the Sumerians (who got there first) and simply call it "The Great Water." Or perhaps it might be more appropriate to use one of their other names, "the Bitter Sea."

Nathan Brown on a Constitutional Declaration

Nathan Brown, who's a specialist on constitutions, dissects the questions surrounding an interim Constitutional Declaration in Egypt, at Foreign Policy. The oddity of electing a President when his powers are undefined is obvious.

Day 2 in Egypt: Live Updates to Follow The Day

How to follow Day 2: Live Updates and Live blogging from Day 2 in Egypt's Presidential elections:

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Election Day, Day One: A Roundup

Egypt Independent
I'm still encountering some Internet access problems at home so I'm not sure if I'll be blogging this evening, so I'm trying to get stuff up during the day.

Today was day one of what is likely to be round one; it would befuddle all us pundits I think if any candidate got 50% and won it in one shot. And there's a second dqy of round one voting. So we won't know much today, except that turnout was high in Cairo (voting hours were extended), less so outside the capital; some violations were reported but generally things were going well.

Live blogs of the day from Ahram Online Al-Jazeera,  and Egypt Independent.Blogger Zeinobia also blogged through the day, and also posted some useful stats and explained why she is backing Abu'l-Futuh .

And here's Michele Dunne on the candidates and their prospects. 

A truly competitive Presidential election has been a long time coming, and whether or not the results are what the democracy advocates envisioned, at least one crusader for reform who spent time in jail got some credit at a polling place:

It's been a long time coming. We may not like the results when we know them,but democracy is messy, which is why as Churchill said, it's the very worst form of government, except for all the others.

Who Says Egypt Hasn't Had a Real Revolution?

Why is so Little of Al-Mutanabbi Translated Into English?

My first reaction to the question in the title was "Why do so few people choose to vacation in North Korea?" because Mutanabbi is a difficult poet to read even for native Arabic speakers. But my snark isn't fair because he is also widely considered the greatest poet after the age of the Mu‘allaqat. *I'm obviously not a native speaker, as was made plain some 40 years back when I took a CASA program course at AUC in Cairo on the poetry of Mutanabbi. With the possible exception of an undergrad course I once took on Ludwig Wittgenstein because it had a title that concealed its real subject, I have rarely felt so out of my depth.

The question is raised by The Egypt Independent and linked to with some comment by Arabic Literature (in English). I suggest you read both.

An earlier post in the series, which I linked to, noted the difficulty of translating James Joyce into Arabic. The issues are not dissimilar, though they go in opposite directions, and the only real parallels between Joyce and Mutanabbi are that both men loved words and played beautifully with them. (I would think it would be difficult to translate Shakespeare for the same reason, but he's popular in many languages.)

As the Italians say, traduttore, traditore,  "translation is treason": (and to prove my point, I just mistranslated it: literally it's "Translator, Traitor."

So for you students of Arabic reading this: therre's an Everest still waiting to be climbed. Translate Mutanabbi.

Election Day: Shibley Telhami's Polls

Most of the Egyptian polls have looked a little strange. Yes, some showed Abu'l-Futuh and Moussa leading, but others seemed to go against what the conventional reading of public opinion suggests: pools showing Shafiq leading, or Hamdeen Sabahi doing very well. Some of this may be due to special interest push-polling; some conceivably is just due to the fact that there is no past performance to judge by. I won't say that Prof. Shibley Telhami's polls are automatically reliable, but he's got a track record of Arab world polling, which is more than many Egyptian news media and NGOs can say. So here's his take. Abu'l-Futuh getting a third of the vote and Moussa a strong second; the rest of the field trailing behind; the Brotherhood suffering from it's breaking its promise not to field a candidate. Is Telhami right? We'll know soon.
Full Survey Results Here

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Egypt On the Eve

The Egyptian election for President begins tomorrow. Since a runoff will be required we still won't knoiw the results for a while, but at least we will finally, 15 months after the departure of Husni Mubarak, get some clue about who will lead Egypt (along with the Army, most likely) for the net several years.

The New York Times looks at the role of SCAF;  while if you need a last-minute rundown of the candidates see this piece at Ahram Online. There had been talk that SCAF would unilaterally issue a new Constitutional Declaration to set the terms of the new President's power since there is no constitution in place; now they're "not setting a timeframe" but clearly it's awkward if neither the voters nor the candidates know what the powers of the new President will be.

So they're off. Let's see what happens.

Hans Christian Andersen in Istanbul

When most of us think of Hans Christian Andersen, we think of fairy tales. But here's something rather different: an account of a visit by Andersen to Constantinople (Istanbul) and a descirption of celebrations of the Prophet's birthday.

Monday, May 21, 2012

A Kuwaiti Censor Speaks

Still spotty connection. Meanwhile, here's a post from Arabic Literature (in English)  on "The Not-so-Secret Life of a Kuwaiti Censor."

Amr Moussa: The Familiar Face

(My Internet connection is glitchy today so posting will be unpredictable. I may add more links to this post when the connection is stable.)

With the Egyptian Presidential vote beginning in only two days, the polls — of dubious reliability given the lack of a track record — continue to suggest that Abdel Moneim Abul’Futuh and Amr Moussa are front runners, but with some polls showing strong performances by Ahmad Shafiq and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi.  Moussa and Abu’l-Futuh virtually tied the expatriate vote, and Morsi did well among Egyptians in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf; Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi ran better than expected.  It is hard to understand the polls showing Shafiq doing well since he has little visible support in the street, but he may surprise. He and Amr Moussa are often seen as the fallul candidates, the “remnants”  of the old regime; but in  Moussa’s case, that “remnant” may have the support to win. It still seems likely that Moussa and Abu’l-Futuh will face each other in a runoff, though no one really knows.

Why does Moussa apparently enjoy such popularity? After more than a year of instability, he offers a familiar face; particularly for those Egyptians who feel the revolutionary movement has destabilized the country. Having been shunted from the Foreign Ministry (where he served for the decade 1991-2001) to the Secretary-Generalship of the Arab League (where he served until last year), he is seen as someone who fell out with Mubarak, and who was not part of the Mubarak apparatus in its last, worst decade, yet who represents the old establishment, has a solid international reputation, and arguably the confidence of a broad range of Egyptians.

On the down side, Egypt's problems are mostly domestic; Moussa's expertise is foreign policy. He's 75, so after years dealing with the now-octagenarian Mubarak, he brings at best only marginally younger blood to the job. He or Shafiq seem to be the hopes of those who want a familiar face, though Shafiq seems to be too much the candidate of the Army and security services. That may make Moussa, if not inevitable, then the only alternative to an Islamist like Abu'l-Futuh or Morsi.

In this recent interview with Al-Ahram, subtitled in English, he discusses his candidacy.

The Dutch East India Company and the Gulf

The Bint Battuta blog reminds us that the Persian Gulf was not just a venue for rivalry between the Portuguese and the British: there was the heyday of the Dutch East India Company (VOC)in the Gulf, especally in the 1600s and first half of the 1700a. The VOC was based in Bandar Abbas and traded from Basra to Hormuz to Yemen.

Gamron (Bandar Abbas) in 1704

Friday, May 18, 2012

Zeinobia Writes the One Unwritten Story of the Egyptian Elections: The Candidates' Wives

So much has been written about the Egyptian elections that it increasingly seems there must be little more to say, but the great Egyptian blogger who writes as Zeinobia has found it, in this article profiling the wives of the major candidates. In the US the media would long since have revealed all, but in the Egyptian campaign even those wives with public careers of their own are staying in the shadows, in part it seems because no one wants to be compared to Suzanne Mubarak.

Ayrault Revisited: Once Again, it's Not "Slang"

It's a frequent problem that many Arabs refer to the spoken dialects of the language — the language they learned at their mother's knee — as "slang," when speaking to English-speakers; of course substantial numbers of Arabs do not even know the literary language. But even if we tolerate equating "slang" and the colloquial dialects (which I emphatically don't), most of the reporting on the Ayrault name transliteration problem still gets it wrong. That story went viral (not due to my posting it, alas) and a great many of the reports were similar to this one at CNN: "The prime minister's last name, it turns out, sounds like an Arabic slang word for penis."

True, others said that it was a case of having that meaning in certain dialects, which is technically true since only in some dialects is أيره pronounced like Ayrault's name, with an "o" vowel. But the word itself, is a perfectly good literary Arabic word with the same meaning, it's just pronounced ayruhu instead of ayro. But either way, it's still spelled  أيره . And the whole story centers around what it looks like on the printed page.

It appears in the classical dictionaries such as the Lisan al-‘Arab.and, below, in Lane's great multi-volume Arabic-English Lexicon. It's true that he defines several of its forms using Latin, but hey, he was writing in the Victoran era. And, "compressed?"

This is, I hope, my last word on this subject.

In the Land of Badia and Carioca, Egypt Arrests Owner of El-Tet Belly-Dance Channel

There was a time when the raqs sharqi or oriental dance, what is known in the West as belly-dancing, was above all associated with Egypt, with Lebanon perhaps a distant second. Madame Badia Masabni's Cabsrets on Opera Square and in Giza were frequented by British officials, King Farouq, and the elite. The most famous dancer of them all, Tahia Carioca, rose to fame at Madame Badia's.
Tahia Carioca in the 1930s or 1940s
But those days, when Carioca is said to have performed at Farouq's coronation (or wedding; the stories differ; one was in 1936 and one in 1938) as past as the monarchy itself. One of the first targets burned on Black Saturday in 1952 was Madame Badia's on Opera Square, and Carioca was jailed for a time under Nasser for calling for democracy. In the 1960s, Nasser's austere socialism mandated a gauzy covering over the midriff. But belly-dancing has remained popular, though increasingly limited to the nightclubs of the pyramid road and the expensive clubs of the five star hotels, where Gulf and Western tourists spend big money but which the average Egyptian cannot afford.

And now there is a different puritanism on the rise, of course. Yesterday the owner of the television satellite channel El-Tet, which broadcasts nothing but round-the-clock belly-dancing videos, was arrested and reportedly charged with "operating without a license, inciting licentiousness and facilitating prostitution." Baligh Hamdy reportedly sent videos from Egypt for broadcast from Jordan and Bahrain, which were then beamed by satellite back to Egypt, where El-Tet appears to have been quite popular. Other reports of the arrest here and here.

The belly-dance is a genuine folk tradition in Egypt, tracing back to the Ghawazee dancers described by E.W. Lane in his Manners and Customs; the popularity of the TV channel doubtless has as much to do with its being targeted as whatever actual offenses may have been committed.

Of course, even if the broadcasting authorities and the vice squad (apparently both were involved), manage to shut down the channel, it has a life of its own on YouTube. In protest of the latest attack on a genuinely popular art form now in decline, two of El-Tet's offerings, followed by one of the immortal Carioca from 1941.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Guess Which Country has the Most Amazigh Cabinet Members?

This blog has frequently noted the growing identity movement among North Africa's Amazigh (plural Imazighen) or "Berber" peoples, especially with the revolutions in Tunisia and Libya. And of course Algeria and Morocco have large and influential Amazigh populations. So which government has the most Imazighen in the Cabinet?
Apparently, as of now, France:

UPDATE: But See the comments, below.

Warda (1939 or 1940-2012)

The Western media this afternoon is filled with tributes to Disco Queen Donna Summer, but music has lost another famous singer today: the Franco-Algerian singer Warda, or Warda al-Jaza'iriyya, though best known just as Warda, has died at age 72. Though born in France of a Lebanese mother and Algerian father, and beginning her career singing Algerian patriotic songs, she eventually achieved stardom in Egypt.

A gallery here. And a few examples from YouTube:

The Problems of Publishing Arabic Literature in Hebrew

Yael Lerer at Jadaliyya has an intriguing post about the failure of Andalus Publishing, which sought to publish Arabic literature in Hebrew in Israel. The article is an interesting reflection on the  divisions within Israel today; even though significant numbers of Israeli Jews come from origins in the Arab world and there is, of course, a substantial Arab minority as well, interest in Arabic literature remains tiny and the translation efforts rare. It's an interesting piece.

Egypt: The Last Week

It's now less than a week until the first round of voting in the Egyptian Presidential elections on May 23rd. Although there are many questions about the accuracy of polls (there isn't exactly a lot of precedent for competitive elections), it's pretty clear no candidate can win a majority in the first round, so a runoff will be required. (The expatriate vote will be announced tomorrow, giving us some clues, though some worry that knowing the expat results could tilt the elections.

It now appears that SCAF will issue a new "constitutional declaration" before the vote, so voters have some clue as to what powers the Presidency will have, since the constituent assembly is currently on hold.  But will such a declaration survive once a real assembly convenes? Could a President be elected with one set of powers only to see them taken away? Will a SCAF "declaration" keep the Presidency under the Army's eagle eye? Can you really hold an election when no one knows what power the post will have only a week before the vote? The mess created last year by the decision to hold elections before the constitution already created a Parliament whose powers are ambiguous at best. And now the Presidency?

Most of the commentary and some of the polls seem to feel that last week's debate helped Amr Moussa and that Moussa's attempts to portray Abdel Moneim Abu'l-Futuh as very much still an Islamist gained traction. Also curious is the apparent rising strength of Ahmad Shafiq, the most unrepentant "remnant" of the old regime still in the race since ‘Omar Suleiman's exclusion. But Shafiq's eligibility remains in litigation. Anyway, we hear that Amr Moussa's campaign is "in good spirits." I'll be posting on Moussa before the vote.

And if you haven't seen it already, Michael Wahid Hanna's "Mapping Egypt's Electorate" at Foreign Policy is worth a read.

I suspect the real battle will be the runoff, if one secularist (Moussa?) and one Islamist (Abu'l-Futuh) survive the first round, it will be seen as a showdown between two worldviews. The probability that the Muslim Brotherhood's second-choice candidate, Muhammad Morsi, has little chance will be interpreted as a defeat for the Brotherhood, but if Abu'l-Futuh makes it into the runoff, he is after all an ex-Brother, and Moussa has raised questions about the "ex-" part.

It should be an interesting week.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

New French PM Ayrault's Arabic Transliteration Problem

What was that name again?
There are only so many sounds in the world, and lots of languages; so it's inevitable that some people are going to have names that mean something quite different in some language somewhere. Sometimes something indelicate. (There's no bad language in what follows, at least in English. And the august French Foreign Ministry has actually had to issue guidance on this.)

As this Bloomberg report notes, (or for those who read French, this piece from Le Point or this one from Le Figaro), the newly-named French Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, has reportedly created a problem for Arabic-language editors. As the English article (the French ones are more blunt) indirectly and oh-so-delicately puts it:
When spoken, his family name is colloquial Arabic in many countries for the third-person singular possessive form of the male sex organ.
If you're still struggling to remember what "the third person singular possessive form" means, it's "his." In other words, it's hard not to spell it  أيره.

And a minor quibble: it's not just colloquial Arabic. While the pronunciation in literary Arabic would by a "u" vowel rather than an "o" vowel, the spelling would be the same,

Supposedly the French Foreign Ministry has even addressed the problem, and editors are taking various courses:
The potential for embarrassment prompted France’s foreign ministry to put out a statement today as Ayrault took office with the recommended spelling in Arabic. The official solution would add the letters L and T to the transliteration. Arabic is a phonetic language where normally all letters are pronounced, unlike French where these two letters in “Ayrault” are silent.
An Nahar, a Beirut-based newspaper, chose that solution. Al Hayat, a London-based newspaper widely considered a reference across the Arab world, published a front-page headline chopping Ayrault’s name to “Aro,” when a more correct transcription would be “Ayro.”
A U.A.E.-based Arabic-language channel has sent an internal note to its journalists, asking them to write his name as “Aygho.”
The Dubai-based Al Bayan newspaper chose to use just his first name on its front-page headline: “Hollande Inaugurates his Mandate by Appointing Jean-Marc as Prime Minister.”
A note for non-Arabists: "Aygho" is not as bizarre as it looks on paper, since the Arabic ghayn  (غ) really does have affinities to the French "r" (not the English "r").

A suggestion from this editor: how about ايراو? I know it still contains اير but at least it gets rid of the "his" element. Similarly, Google's transliteration site offers up ايراولت , which would be this plus the "lt" that the Foreign Ministry recommends.

Ah, the challenges of modern diplomacy. That's all I'm going to say right now. You can make up your own jokes. I know I have.

Update: The superb linguistics blog Language Log has seen fit to link to my post (among others), and have in addition noted the problems the French have had with Vladimir Putin's last name, and the problems faced by the Pakistani diplomat Akbar Zeb, whose problem in the Arab world is even more embarrassing than Ayrault's, because both his first and his last names are involved. ("Akbar" is "biggest" in Arabic "Zeb," usually zibb or zubb, has the same meaning as ayr, but a bit more vulgar.)

Further Annals of the Animal Division of Mossad: Spy Bird in Turkey!

Mossad's latest agent? (Ynet)
My longtime readers are already aware of the insidious Mossad plots to train regional fauna as spies: first there was the shark attack in Sharm al-Sheikh that an official blamed on the Israeli intelligence service (especially sneaky since a lot of the tourists at Sharm are in fact Israelis). Then there was the spy vulture found in Saudi Arabia with a GPS tracker and (sneakiest of all) a leg band from an Israeli university. (Obviously a plot, right? Mossad agents always wear identifying marks, don't they? Do their human agents wear armbands that say "Israel?") Not to mention that Iran has reportedly caught pigeons and squirrels in the act as well (though it was hinted those were Western agents, not Mossad's). And the Israeli press always makes fun of these stories, which means something if you have a suitably conspiratorial mind.

Well, the Animal Division of Mossad has struck again! Israeli media is quoting Turkish reports that a Turkish farmer discovered a dead European bee-eater (like the one in the picture) complete with a leg-band that said Israel. (You'd think Mossad would have learned by now not to put "Israel" on legbands of their spy birds, but who knows?)

But that's not all: according to Yediot Aharanot's English website Ynet News:
The band, however, was not the most damning piece of evidence against the bee-eater: Its nostrils were.

The bird-beak in question reportedly sported "unusually large nostrils," which – combined with the identification ring – raised suspicions that the bird was "implanted with a surveillance device" and that it arrived in Turkey as part of an espionage mission.
The bird's remains were originally handed over to the Turkish Agriculture Ministry, which then turned in over to Ankara's security services.
I suspect the Turkish security services are professional enough to politely accept the dead bird, perhaps, but not to actually spend taxpayers' lira examining its nostrils. Of course I could be wrong.

Spillover: The Fighting in Lebanon

The fighting in Tripoli (the Lebanese one) that broke out over the weekend is pretty universally seen as a spillover from Syria: sectarian in its origins, involving Sunni Islamists and ‘Alawites. One of the best assessments I've seen to date is this one by Emile Hokayem at Foreign Policy. Lebanon's fate seems to be to echo the conflicts of its neighbors, but most inevitably Syria's. The potential of a protracted civil conflict in Syria to spill over into a regional conflict is real; in Tripoli, it's already happening.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Next-to-Last Free Officer: Zakaria Mohieddin, 1918-2012

Zakaria Mohieddin, one of the original Free Officers of 1952 and onetime Vice President of Egypt, Prime Minister, and intelligence chief under Gamal Abdel Nasser, has died today at the age of 94. With his passing, only one of the original Free Officers from the original Revolution Command Council survives: his first cousin, Khaled Mohieddin. (In this 2010 post about Khaled I mistakenly declared him the last, under the mistaken impression — derived from the Internet — that Zakaria had died in 2009. I acknowledge the error, which is now no longer erroneous, since Khaled is now indeed the last.)

Mohieddin, left front; Nasser center at corner of table; Naguib in hat; Anwar Sadat left rear
Zakaria Mohieddin always was a presence, if a somewhat unassuming one, in the Nasser era, often used for diplomatic missions. As a young officer he served with Naguib and Nasser at Faluja in Palestine in 1958k, and became an early member of the Free Officers. While his cousin Khaled was the Revolution Command Council's most leftwing member, Zakaria was often seen as pro-Western. He was the first head of Egypt's General Intelligence Directorate when Nasser set it up in the early 1950s, but it did not become the feared instrument of Nasser's security state until under later directors. He served as Vice President from 1961-68, and Nasser was about to dispatch him to the United Nations to try to avert war when the 1967 war broke out with the Israeli pre-emptive strike. When Nasser offered to resign after the defeat he named Mohieddin his successor, but of course the crowds, and Mohieddin, refused to accept Nasser's resignation. He was also Prime Minister in 1965-66. He quit public life in 1968, and had remained in obscurity; his last public appearance seems to have been in 2002 on the 50th Anniversary of the 1952 Revolution.

SCAF paid tribute to an earlier ruling junta with Field Marshal Tantawi, Chief of Staff Gen. Enan, and other members of SCAF participating in his funeral today. 

With his passing, the only survivor of the original Revolution Command Council is Zakaria's first cousin Khaled, who is nearly 90. The last vestiges of the Nasser era are passing from scene.

The Conundrum of Abu'l Futuh: Why His Broad Appeal?

One of the less-predictable aspects of Egypt's Presidential election race has been the emergence of Abd al-Moneim Abu'l-Futuh as one of the front-runners, if not the front-runner. He will be holding a big rally this coming Friday, apparently intended as a show of strength. The debate last week clearly reflects a perception that the contest is becoming a two-way race between Abu'l-Futuh and Amtr Moussa. Amr Moussa is easy enough to characterize: former Foreign Minister and Arab League Secretary-General, familiar figure in the establishment with just enough distance from the Mubarak administration to have some credibility, Most of the other candidates can be easily characterized as well: Muhammad Morsi as the Muslim Brotherhood's anointed candidate, the "spare tire" dropped in to replace Khairat al-Shater; Ahmad Shafiq the military stalwart of the Mubarak era; Hamdeen Sabahi the Nasserist; Khalid Ali the liberal, and so on.

Abu'l-Futuh should be easy enough to categorize as well. A physician, he first showed his political colors when, as President of the Student Union at Cairo University, he publicly challenged President Anwar Sadat. Starting out with links to Al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya, he entered the Muslim Brotherhood, was jailed in 1981 during Sadat's crackdown on opposition, then rose through the Brotherhood ranks to serve on the Brotherhood's guidance council. Eased out of the Brotherhood senior leadership in 2009, he was officially expelled last year when he announced his Presidential campaign. It's not surprising that he has the endorsement of many Islamists, ranging from the hardline Salafi Al-Nour Party and Al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya, as well as the moderate Islamist Al-Wasat Party,and by many accounts is supported by many members of the Muslim Brotherhood who find Morsi uninspiring. So it's a fairly classic Islamist resume, if more prominent than most.

So why on earth has he been endorsed by Wael Ghonim, the social-media savvy Microsoft Google executive who helped fuel the Facebook side of the Revolution, and a fair number of other (but by no means all) Egyptian liberals and secularists? Why is he strongly popular on university campuses?

I'm hardly the first to ask the question. Shadi Hamid's piece for Foreign Policy last week was entitled "A Man for All Seasons," and as he puts it:
Aboul Fotouh's supporters may have hailed from radically different backgrounds, but they believed, above all, in the candidate. They wanted to transcend the old battle lines of "Islamist" or "liberal" and reimagine Egyptian politics in the process.
What those grand ambitions mean in practice is, at times, unclear. As Aboul Fotouh has risen to front-runner status in the first ever competitive presidential election in Egypt's history, he has become the Rorschach test of Egyptian politics. Liberals think he's more liberal than he actually is. Conservatives hope he's more conservative.
Certainly the man has had success in portraying himself as a man who transcends the secular-religious divide. Shadi Hamid again:
Aboul Fotouh's success stems in part from his ability to neutralize this religious divide. One of his messages -- and one that has appeal for liberals and hard-line Islamists alike -- is this: We are all, in effect, Islamists, so why fight over it?  . . . Aboul Fotouh is able to make this argument, and make it sound convincing, in part because of who he is. He is the rare figure who has been, at various points in his career, a Salafi, a Muslim Brother, and, today, a Turkish-style "liberal Islamist."
Abu'l-Futuh's performance in the debate showed him at his best as a dignified (and unusually tall and thus commanding), well-spoken figure. Not a rabble-rouser, or a wild-eyed radical. He looks like a distinguished medical man, which he is. But is that enough to make him President?

Egypt has never had a genuinely competitive Presidential race until now (if a race in which ten candidates, including three front-runners, were disqualified is "genuinely competitive"); so it is hard to say. And certainly not all secularists and liberals are joining the Abu'l-Futuh bandwagon; many suspect he is really still a Muslim Brother at heart, and some cynics wonder if his "expulsion" and the Brotherhood's threat to expel anyone supporting him were not ploys to increase his credibility with non-Islamists.

Some of his appeal to liberals may be understood from this post about a campaign rally by the blogger Baheyya,  You might also check out the website Liberal Koshari, which despite a general irreverence endorsed Abu'l-Futuh with reservations:
Aboul Fotouh is not our ideal candidate and we disagree with a number of his views (as we indicated above) and with those who claim he is a “liberal” (as we mentioned above, he is "Islamist-lite" a la Tunisia's Ennahda). We realize that some of our readers will be disappointed with this endorsement but we think, compared to the other names in the running, Aboul Fotouh is the right man to lead Egypt for the coming five years.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement, and perhaps part of the Abu'l-Futuh phenomenon is driven by this "best of a bad lot" approach. He's not as bad as the others, so he'll have to do? That doesn't seem to explain his more enthusiastic supporters, many of whom self-identify as liberals.

If you're reading this expecting me to offer some big answer: he's really still a hardcore Islamist, or he's a liberal at heart, or he's really a true middle-of-the-roader, I'm afraid you'll be disappointed. I think part of the attraction may be that he doesn't fit so neatly into the stereotypes of the other candidates. But then, when someone seems to be all things to all people, it's not only cynics who should ask what the man really is for. He wants an Islamic-oriented secular state? He wants a shari‘a based state but doesn't object to Muslims converting to Christianity? How can these various positions be reconciled; how can one person hold seemingly conflicting positions in their mind at the same time? Or is he really the wave of the future? The ultimate synthesis between secular modernity and Islamism? (UPDATE: Hold the Presses: the Los Angeles Times has it figured out: he's a "Dynamic Pragmatist.")

Count me as trying to keep an open mind, but as not buying into the enthusiasm. Of course, I don't have a vote, and there's a reasonable chance we're going to be having lots of time to analyze who this man is and where he would lead Egypt. On the other hand, some polls suggest he's faltering in the race, though the poll are conflicting and he's still got his big rally coming up Friday.

I won't be profiling all of the candidates, but I probably will post on the front-runners before the first round vote.

The Moor Does His Pie Charts on the Algerian Elections

Kal at The Moor Next Door has checked in with his assessment of the Algerian elections, and since he frequently puts together useful charts on regional politics, he offers a plethora of pie charts.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Barbara Stowasser

I'm saddened to report, via  Georgetown University and the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, the passing of Professor Barbara Stowasser, several times Director of CCAS and holder of the Sultanate of Oman Chair in Arabic and Islamic Literature at CCAS. Barbara has served on the Board of Advisory Editors of the Middle East Journal throughout my tenure as Editor. She will be missed by Georgetown and I am sure, and certainly by the Journal.

A Reminder of Britain's Security Legacy in Bahrain

During Bahrain's current troubles,there has been little talk about the legacy of British rule, and the post-independence role of British security advisers, in the island Kingdom. This post from Adam Curtis at the BBC, complete with lots of old BBC video clips, reminds us of the legacy of Charles Belgrave and more notoriously, Ian Henderson. I'm not the sort to blame colonialism for every single flaw in modern Middle Eastern states, but it's certainly not entirely innocent. And a note: though Ian Henderson, the British policeman who ran security fot decades in Bahrain after establishing his credentials suppressing the Mau Mau in Kenya, only retired in 1998,the last I heard he is still alive and living in Bahrain.

Though there are a lot of old video clips of historical interest, I'm not going to label this one "nostalgia," since I doubt if very many are all that nostalgic for this aspect of the past.

An Undiscovered Ancient Language from the Zagros Region?

Let's start the week with something quite different from a few millennia  back. This report in The Independent summarizes an article in which Cambridge University Archaeologist John MacGinnis describes what may be evidence of a previously unknown Middle Eastern language. An Assyrian tablet listing the names of some 60 names of women, of whom 45 of the names are not identifiable as from any known language. If you have access to JSTOR (I can only access the Middle East Journal, not other JSTOR archives), the original article in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies is here.

For contextual reasons, MacGinnis suggests the list is of captives from Assyrian conquests in the Zagros region, suggesting the mystery language was spoken in that area.

Of course if this is a language that was never reduced to writing, surviving only in these names written down by an Assyrian scribe, this may be a dead-end street, but it's still a reminder that our knowledge the ancient past is often limited by what was written down or what can be recovered by archaeologyl

Friday, May 11, 2012

Happy Mothers' Day Weekend

I know that the Middle East generally celebrated Mothers' Day on March 21, but Sunday is the date in the US, so for the mothers out there, and those married to mothers, and those who had mothers, Happy Mothers' Day, and here's a photo essay from the Huffington Post: "A Snapshot of American Muslim Motherhood."

My Last Debate Post Before the Weekend: I Promise

The hosts/questioners last night for the Egyptian Presidential debate began with Mona El Shazli as host for the first "round"; her outfit has provoked some comments from viewers. Someone has finally figured out where she got the inspiration:
Have a good weekend.

My Own Thoughts on the Debate

I said I'd post my own thoughts on the4 Egyptan d4ebate. Let me stipulate up front that I have not watched every minute of the four and a half hours: I actually have a job. I watched parts of it live and have watched other parts since, and I have read the live blogs and transcripts I linked to earlier, So I may have missed something, or you may not agree with my impressions. But here goes anyway:

Too long. I can't imagine anybody will disagree. Four and a half hours? Running till 2 am? The Cairo elites may be nightowls, but do you think villagers who have to be up at dawn were sitting in the coffeehouse till 2 am? True, this was on commercial, not State, TV, and probably intended for the elites.

Too selective. It's true that Amr Moussa and Abdel Moneim Abu'l-Futuh have led most polls. But not by huge margins. And there are 13 candidates, and some, like Ahmad Shafiq and Muhammad Morsi, do have support bases. This gives an impression of the Powers That Be having decided these are the "real" candidates: one from the old regime, and one an Islamist, but a kindly, liberal Islamist, not a wild-bearded fire-eater.  Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, actually gave a long interview on another TV station during the debate, and drew away some viewers.

Both men came out swinging. Generally I had the impression Moussa was the more aggressive and more ad hominem, in his attempts to portray Abu'l-Futuh as a dangerous Islamist, still at heart a Muslim Brother or a Salafi from his al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya youth. At the same time he tried to paint Abu'l-Futuh as a hardcore Islamist, he also raised the latter's opinion that Muslims were free to convert to Christianity, a position opposed to traditional interpretations of Shari‘a: so he could also alienate Abu'l-Futuh's Islamist support base. He's likely to have had more success in raising doubts among some of the Abu'l-Futuh's liberal supporters, I'd guess. On the other side of the coin, Abu'l-Futuh tried to portray Moussa as a fixture of the old regime, one of the fallul or "remnants" as they are called..

Not a lot of detailed programs. There was a lot of generality on economic issues and not a lot of clear programs spelled out, as far as I can tell. Abu'l-Futuh supported health care insurance without clearly saying how it would be paid for. On foreign policy, Abu'l-Futuh wants to "revise" the peace treaty with Israel; both men steered clear of being too pro-US. As I noted last night, in the wee small hours Moussa called Iran and Arab country, though he's the former head of the Arab League and a former Foreign Minister who clearly knows better,

The elephant in the living room: SCAF. There was a question about the role of the military. Both men gave it patriotic support and expressed confidence it would return to the barracks. Abu'l-Futuh favored a civilian Defense Minister. Both men want the courts to investigate the virginity tests issue and favor civilian rule. But if there was a discussion of the large number of civilians now held after trial by military courts (far more than in the Mubarak years), I missed it.

Who won? I suspect that the supporters of each candidate thinks his or her guy won, as is often the case in these things. Secularists think Moussa nailed Abu'l-Futuh as still really an Islamist (which I suspect he is), while Abu'l-Futuh's fans feel he successfully portrayed Moussa as another of the fallul (which he also is). Moussa's finger-wagging, accusatory style will be seen as aggressive truth-telling by his backers and rude presumption by his opponents. Those supporting any of the 11 candidates who weren't there will probably find both men wanting.

These are provisional reactions. I haven't read every word of the transcripts or watched every minute of the debate. I may have more thoughts in the future.

After the Looonnng, Long Debate

Eventually the first Egyptian Presidential debate ended last night, or early this morning for those in Cairo. The debate itself lasted four and a half hours (though there were breaks and the candidates got breathers), but it still ran past two a.m. and with the "pregame show" talkfest and very long commercial interludes the program ran more than six hours. If you missed it and understand Arabic, you can find it where the live-streaming was last night on my post of yesterday, or here at the sponsors' website. This is mostly for those of you who are retired, unemployed, or hospitalized; the tape, complete with the pre-show talkfest and various documentary clips and lots and lots of commercials, runs about six and a half hours. I have not watched it all.

An early attempt at an English translation and transcript can be found here: round one; round two.

Among those who liveblogged it in English:
I will be posting my own personal reactions and comments later this morning or early afternoon as I get my thoughts together. In the meantime I note that Amr Moussa is 75 years old, and no wonder he called Iran an Arab country at two in the morning. I can only echo this tweet:

New Blog: Tunisian Literature (in English)

Via the great literary blog Arabic Literature (in English) we are informed of a new blog: Tunisian Literture (in English). run by Tunisian poet Ali Znaidi. It's not only a welcome addition to the limited number of Arabic literature blogs in English, but also a sign of the growing role of English in Tunisia, a country where French remains, overwhelmingly, the second language and the primary cultural language of the elite.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Late Night Follies: Former Foreign Minister and Arab League SG Calls Iran an Arab Country

They're still going ... and going ... and going. The Egyptian Presidential debate has been going for some four hours and it's pushing 2 am in Cairo. (Originally I wrote 3 but apparently they aren't on Summer Time and we are.) That may explain why Amr Moussa, former Foreign Minister and longtime Secretary General of the Arab League, just said that he opposes attacking Iran, as a fellow Arab country.

Does this mean we can end the "Persian Gulf/Arab Gulf" discussion? Actually, after such a long night on live television, I'm amazed either man is still standing. More tomorrow (assuming the debate has actually ended by then).

The Carnage in Damascus

I'll assess the response to the Egyptian debate (previous two posts) later or more likely in the morning, but I felt I should at least note the bloody bombings in Damascus today. Apparently the bloodiest bombings yet, some 55 dead and possibly climbing, thr Syrian opposition is denying having any role, and of course the Asad regime says this proves what it has been saying all along: the opposition are terrorists. Apparently a sophisticated explosive was used, so of course some are wondering if Al-Qa‘ida is involved; if so, which I have no way of judging, it might lead to more in the West moving away from the idea of support of the resistance. That is all the more reason for the resistance to denounce these bombings (as the Syrian National Council is doing). Video from Al Jazeera English and Syrian State TV:

The Lighter Side: Some Tweets from "Round One" of the Debate

After long delays in getting started and nearly two hours of debate, "round one" of the Egyptian Presidential debate is over. They're taking a thirty minute break as I write this, then coming back for another 90 minutes. If my math is right this thing will go past midnight in Cairo. So I thought, since it will be hours before it's over, some of the more amusing Twitter commentary in English (hashtag #monazarat) would be worth preserving. There's a lot of serious commentary out there too, but I'm going for the humor here. And I know most Egyptians aren't on Twitter and most of those who are post in Arabic, but this is for my broader audience.

And yes, they called it the end of "Round One." So naturally:
Not surprisingly, the lengthy delays drew a lot of comments. One candidate was delayed in traffic, which was one reason for the delay:
...which led to this comment:

But once Abu al-Futuh arrived, he paused for afternoon prayer, and the hosts did their talking head thing for longer and longer . . .

 The whole thing was preceded by lengthy ads. (State TV wasn't broadcasting it so commercial TV did it up commercially.) Then it was interrupted periodically by long commercial breaks. Perhaps the best comment I've seen on this:
Some of the other comments about the commercials:

While using up time the hosts ran clips of US Presidential debates from Kennedy-Nixon onward, but apparently made one slip-up:
When the debates actually began, most of the tweets became more serious, but there were odd moments:

Not everyone was watching or impressed (rude word warning):
And some were wondering about the man who wasn't there: