A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

October 31, 1914: Turkey Joins the Central Powers

 On October 29, 1914, the Turkish warships Yavuz Sultan Selim and Medilli, which until a short time before had been the German battle cruiser Goeben and light cruiser Breslau, attacked Sevastopol, Odessa.  and other Russian Black Sea ports. The Ottoman Empire had been neutral; but then the Goeben and Breslau, fleeing  British vessels in the Mediterranean, sailed into Constantinople and it was announced that Germany had transferred them to Turkey. The German crews put on Fezzes and became part of the Ottoman fleet.

The October 29 raid on Sevastopol was carried out without approval of the Ottoman Cabinet, though likely with the knowledge of the War Minister, Enver Pasha. On October 31 Enver ordered men to report for conscription and formally joined the Central Powers; on November 2, Russia declared war, and the British followed three days later.

I previously ran this clip on the Goeben/Yavuz:

And I also ran across this photo from November 11, 1914, showing the Ottoman Sheikhulislam (the chief religious figure) announcing the war and proclaiming a Jihad. The British worried that this might lead to a rising of Muslims in India, but it never did; the Sultan's claim to be Caliph of Islam was not widely acknowledged outside the Ottoman territories themselves.
The Ottoman decision to go to waron the side of the Central Powers was, of course, fatal to the Empire.

Is Bishop Rafael Holding a Jedi Light Sabre?

His Grace Bishop Rafael, Auxiliary Bishop of Central Cairo and Heliopolis, is one of the three finalist candidates for the next Coptic Pope. He's the youngest of the finalists at 58. After posting about him last night I looked a little longer at this official photo.

That's a Coptic cross in his right hand, of course. But what's that in his left hand? A candlestick with an oddly tapered candle? A pastoral staff with an illuminated top for some reason?  A wizard's wand? A very odd microphone? A glow-stick since today's Halloween?

Until I learn otherwise I'm going with Jedi Light Sabre.

No irreverence intended. We'll find out Sunday whether the Force is with him or not.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

An Early Photo of Saad and Safiya Zahgloul

Saad Zaghloul,  the great Egyptian nationalist hero of the 1919 Revolution, and Prime Minister in the 1920s, has been an occasional subject here, and I've even run rare video of him; his wife Safiya was a prominent early women's rights advocate and ally of  Hoda Sha‘arawi.

Zaghloul is a familiar face, with prominent statues of him and his picture in Wafd Party offices and elsewhere, but the familiar face is an elderly one, the man of 1919 and the 1920s, when he was in his 60s.  This site dedicated to old pictures has run a picture of the Zaghlouls I don't think I'd seen before, so for those history buffs who may not have seen it either I reproduce it here. No date given, but they married in 1895 (Saad would have been 36) so it's presumably of or after that date.

Coptic Papal Candidates Down to Three

Yesterday's election involving selected Coptic electors has narrowed the number of candidates for Coptic Pope from five to three. A blindfolded child will choose the Pope in a ceremony known as the Altar Lot on Sunday.

The three finalists are two bishops and one monk. Tomorrow, Copts will begin a three-day fast to precede the Altar Lot on Sunday. The finalists are:

Bishop Rafael. The Auxiliary Bishop of Central Cairo and Heliopolis, Bishop Rafael is the best-known of the three as the Bishop for the capital's downtown area and a figure often seen on television programs. He is active in social and youth affairs and is close to the Bishop for Youth Affairs, Bishop Moussa, who had been an early favorite but was passed over. He was a one-time aide to the late Pope Shenouda III. A graduate of Ain Shams University Medical School, he has been a bishop since 1997. Born in 1954, he is the youngest of the three finalists.

Bishop Tawadros. The Auxiliary Bishop of Buheira in the Nile Delta; he is an Auxiliary to Bishop Pachomios, the locum tenens or "Acting Pope" during the transition. Tawadros, a pharmacist by training, he has been a bishop since 1997. Some consider him a key supporter of improved Muslim-Christian relations, but others claim he has not done enough to defend Copts whose churches have been attacked. He is 60 years old.

Father Rafael Ava Mina.  The oldest candidate at age 70, Ava Mina is an ordinary monk-priest, not a bishop. He was close to the late Pope Cyril VI (Kyrillos VI). A law shool graduate, he is a monk known for his piety and his writings, and is bsed at Mar Mina Monastery near Alexandria.

I expect to have more on the election later in the week.

Monday, October 29, 2012

A Sudanese-Egyptian Battalion in Maximilian's Mexico

The caption on the illustration of military uniforms above, left, though it may be difficult to read, says "Egyptian Battalion in Mexico 1863-1867." This has to be one of the more curious expeditions in the history of European colonialism.

The strange French adventure in Mexico during the American Civil War, in which Louis Napoleon installed a Hapsburg Prince, Maximilian, as Emperor of Mexico, is a strange interlude, one that ended badly for Maximilian (in the firing squad sense of "badly"). Benito Juarez and Mexican Revolutionaries on the one hand, and the United States on the other (which, once the Civil War ended, decided to enforce the Monroe Doctrine and get rid of a European Emperor in Mexico) spelled the end of the strange adventure. But if a Hapsburg Emperor of Mexico installed by a Bonaparte wasn't strange enough, part of Maximilian's Army was a battalion of Egyptian troops (mostly Sudanese enlisted men with Egyptian officers), the bright idea of someone who thought Sudanese troops would be more easily acclimated to the Mexican heat than Frenchmen.

Said Pasha, Wali of Egypt 1854-1863
The Egyptian Wali Said Pasha agreed to provide an "Auxiliary Battalion" of 447 men in four companies. They sailed from Alexandria on January 9, 1863, aboard the troopship Seine. Said Pasha died nine days later, succeeded as Wali by his nephew Ismail. (The title Khedive, though in popular use, was not officially recognized by the Ottoman Sultan until 1867.)

Arrival in Veracruz
The expedition suffered severely from disease en route: a typhus outbreak aboard ship, a yellow fever outbreak after arrival in Veracruz, that killed the commanding officer, and other bouts with dysentery and pulmonary diseases. The force did see action against the Juaristas, and their French commander is said to have remarked that they fought like lions. The French used some Algerian troops as translators.

The Egyptian Battalion Arrives in Paris
In 1867, the 326 survivors of the Egyptian battalion sailed from Mexico after the fall of Maximilian. Louis Napoleon reviewed them in Paris before their return to Egypt.  Accounts of the Egyptian battalion here and here; a contemporary New York Times report here.

Storm Report

As American readers are no doubt aware, we're being hit by a combination of a hurricane and a winter storm that is likely to do record damage. I'll post periodically so long as Ihave Internet access and electrical power, but both are likely to suffer interruptions, so be patient and rest assured I'll be back as soon as I can. Right now I still have Internet.

Coptic Voters Vote Today

The 2,406 selected Coptic voters eligible to contribute to the choice of a new Coptic vote — including representatives of Copts abroad and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church — are voting today to choose three finalists from the five candidates previously selected from a field of 17. As noted in my previous post, the new Pope will be chosen from the final three names by a blindfolded boy by lot on November 4.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Uh, Just in Case ...

I'll be back as usual on Monday. I hope. As my American readers are well aware, Hurricane Sandy is moving up the East Coast, and a cold front moving down from Canada, and they're going to collide over the Eastern US and create a superstorm, or "Frankenstorm" as it's being called due to its Halloween timing.  So I'll be back trying to blog, assuming I have electrical power and the Internet. If I'm not here, assume I've been Frankenstormed.

The Khartoum Blasts and the Sinai Connection

The explosions that tore through the Yarmouk arms factory in Khartoum on Tuesday night were initially said to be an accident, but by the next day Sudan was blaming Israel, pointing to rocket casings and eyewitness reports of four aircraft  bombing the plant. Israel is taking its usual route of neither confirming nor denying, while Israeli officials are leaking information about Sudan's role in conveying Iranian arms via Sinai to Hamas in Gaza.

Israeli reports have suggested that the plant was operated by Iran's Revolutionary Guards to produce weaponry for Hamas, and that the plant is in Sudan to facilitate smuggling of arms via an increasingly uncontrolled Sinai into Gaza.  Israeli Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad reiterated these claims in effect, while declining to comment on any Israeli role in the bombing.

Egyptian media are also linking the attacks to Israeli efforts to stem the flow of arms via Sinai.

Israeli aircraft could reach Khartoum, at least with in-flight refueling, though there are also persistent claims in the Arab world that Israel leases a base on Eritrea's Dahlak islands for operations over the Red Sea, though Eritrea has denied this. On at least two earlier occasions (one of which is reported here), there have  been allegations of Israeli operations inside Sudan.

The Likud-Yisrael Beitenu Merger

The announcement that Benyamin Netanyahu's Likud Party and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu will merge prior to the January elections will, assuming is approved by the parties, create a consolidated rightwing secular bloc to fight the Israeli elections, something the two men (who often have been at odds on specific issues) calculate will strengthen their hold on power.

An early poll, however, suggests the merged party might win fewer seats than the two parties running separately, which might frustrate the intention, though they would still easily win the largest bloc of seats. It's also likely that the merger on the right will increase pressuire among the splintered parties of tf the center and left to form some sort of unified bloc of their own,

The calculus is not necessarily as simple as it sounds. Likud has always been a secular party of the right, but it has not been openly hostile to the religious parties, which are almost always necessary to coalition building. Lieberman's party, on the contrary, has been an outspoken opponent of the power of the religious bloc, and vigorously secularist like much of its ex-Soviet immigrant support base. In a year when military service for Yeshiva students has been a divisive issue in Israel, it will be interesting to see how a Likud-Yisrael Beitenu merger handles such issues.

One thing is clear: Yisrael Beitenu is clearly the junior partner. Netanyahu made clear that he never considered any merger plan that would have required a rotation of the Prime Ministership between the leaders: Netanyahu would serve ss PM the entire term. Lieberman seems content with this, acknowledging that compromises must be made.

The fragmented center-left parties have now had a gauntlet thrown down by the rightist parties, who are hoping to lock in their dominance of the Knesset. Whether the center-left can counter with some kind of bloc of their own, or whether indeed they are increasingly irrelevant, may become clearer as the campaign proceeds.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

‘Eid Mubarak.

‘Eid al-‘Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice that is one of the two major feasts of Islam and that begins as the Hajj concludes in Mecca, is beginning. Let me wish all my Muslim readers ‘Eid Mubarak.

The Day of ‘Arafat

Today is the Day of ‘Arafat, when the pilgrims camp on the plain at the foot of Mount ‘Arafat near Mecca (a light rail system runs there now), to commemorate the Prophet's "Farewell Sermon" at that place on his last pilgrimage to Mecca. It is considered an essential part of the Hajj.

This evening, as the pilgrims leave ‘Arafat, the ‘Eid al-‘Adha begins.

Once again, the live feed::

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Yet Another Anniversary: Kilometer 101

Besides yesterday's anniversaries of El Alamein and the Beirut Marine Barracks bombing, today marks a somewhat different kind of anniversary: one that began a road towards peace: the Kilometer 101 talks.

Thirty-nine years ago today, on October 27, 1973, Egyptian and Israeli generals agreed to meet near the Suez Canal to discuss the stalemate that had developed at the end of the fighting in the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Israel, having crossed to the West Bank of the Suez Canal in its counteroffensive, cut off the Egyptian Third Field Army from its sources of supply just as a ceasefire went into effect. Egypt was left with a major part of its Army cut off without supplies, and with an Israeli Army on the road to Cairo. On October 27, the Egyptians agreed to direct negotiations, military to military, at the front to seek a disengagement. The first meeting actually took place after midnight, and thus on October 28. The two sides met at Kilometer 101 on the Cairo-Suez road, thus only 101 kilometers from the Egyptian capital.
UN Checkpoint at Kilometer 101
Though Egypt was forced into the talks by military necessity, one of its goals in the war had been to force negotiations with Israel in order to regain Sinai for Egypt. Ultimately, the talks at Kilometer 101 evolved into Henry Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy (Kissinger had previously ignored the Middle East due to preoccupation with Vietnam, but now became fully engaged), the first and second Sinai Disengagement Agreements, and ultimately Sadat's visit to Jerusalem four years later, and the subsequent Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

It is also easy to forget that Arabs had refusred to negotiate directly with Israelis after the end of the 1948 War and the Rhodes Armistice; talks when they did occur were "proximity" talks with a third-party mediator, and went nowhere. At Kilometer 101, generals met generals on military disengagement issues, but it also met Egyptians and Israelis were talking directly to each other for the first time in years.
One of the Later Meetinvs at Kilometer 101
The Kilometer 101 talks continued until superseded by the Kissinger shuttles; Israel allowed the resupply of the Third Army; Egypt continued to negotiate directly. Kilometer 101 marked the beginning of an Egyptian-Israeli peace process that ultimately led to a peace treaty.

Watching the Hajj Online

As has been the case for the past couple of years, it's possible for Muslims, and for us non-Muslims who will never see the Hajj in person, to watch the pilgrimage ceremonies live online. Several Saudi and other channels are broadcasting. Here's a YouTube embed of Saudi Channel 1's coverage, though it's evening there as I post this in the afternoon here:

The Hajj Begins Today

And proclaim unto mankind the pilgrimage. They will come unto thee on foot and on every lean camel; they will come from every deep ravine,
That they may witness things that are of benefit to them, and mention the name of Allah on appointed days over the beast of cattle that He hath bestowed upon them. Then eat thereof and feed therewith the poor unfortunate.
Then let them make an end of their unkemptness and pay their vows and go around the ancient House.
Qur'an, Sura 22 (Al-Hajj) 27-29

Today is the 8th of Dhu'l-Hijja 1433 in the Muslim calendar, and at Mecca it is the first official day of the Hajj. It is traditionally known as Yawm al-Tarwiyya, the day of "watering," because in earlier times the pilgrims, after the initial rituals in Mecca, stocked up on water for the encampment at Mina, which then had no water supplies.

The Hajj remains the largest religious ritual held at a single time for a single purpose,prior to the opening of this year's Hajj at least 1.7 million pilgrims had already arrived. Hajj Mabrur (May your Hajj be accepted) to the pilgrims.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

"The Oldest Tune in History"?

The Egypt Independent has a provocative piece on Coptic music entitled "Humming the Oldest Tune in History."

The title refers to the assertion made in the article that ritual music from Pharaonic Egypt was often incorporated into Christian liturgy by changing the words but retaining the Pharaonic tune. Given the frequency with which Western "pagan" customs were "baptized" into Christian customs and symbols in Western Europe (Easter eggs and Christmas trees among them), and given the continuity of the Egyptian language from Demotic into Coptic in Late Antiquity, and Coptic use of some Pharaonic symbolism such as the ankh, there doesn't seem to be anything incredible about it. I'll admit, I'd like to know the documentary sources for these assertions, though:
Talking about Coptic music is in fact a conversation about the pharaonic musical heritage formulated over the millennia, according to composer George Kyrillos, a deacon at the Virgin Mary Church in Maadi and the first person to musically document Coptic hymns successfully.
“Coptic music is part of the world’s cultural heritage, just like the [Giza] pyramids,” says Kyrillos.
The origin of the “Calvary” hymn sung on Good Friday every year, for instance, is a pharaonic melody that priests played as they buried the ancient Egyptian kings. Early Copts, familiar with the tune, continued using it on Good Friday, when Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and burial is remembered.
Similarly, the Coptic Orthodox Church inherited most pharaonic prayer hymns with the introduction of Christianity into Egypt, despite the pagan origins of the original tunes, according to Christian faith. They were passed on sonically from one Coptic generation to the next.
During Ramadan, we discussed a somewhat similar claim about a Muslim Ramadan chant.

While I don't know if these claims have any solid basis in evidence, it's intriguing, though I'm also unsure if that would make any of these hymns "the oldest tune in history."

The one specific claim  made, though, refers to Coptic hymn sung on Good Friday to mark the burial of Christ, saying it preserves the Pharaonic tune for the burial of a Pharaoh. The Egypt Independent article refers to it by the Latinate term "Calvary," but it's more normally called "Golgotha," Coptic adopting the Aramaic place name.

The Egypt Independent  article lacks any recorded examples, but YouTube  comes through. The first of these clips has the Coptic text and the English, with a background of religious Passion imagery; the second shows the hymn in context of the Coptic Good Friday ritual.

Another Anniversary: 29 Years Since the Beirut Marine Barracks

Not only is today the anniversary of El Alamein, it's also the 29th anniversary of the bombing of the US Marine Barracks in Beirut on October 23, 1983. That bombing, which killed 220 Marines, 18 Navy and three Army personnel, was the greatest loss the Marines had suffered in a single day since Iwo Jima, and the greatest US military loss in a single day since the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968. One Lebanese was killed. On the same day, another truck bomb struck the headquarters of the French 1st Parachute Chasseur Regiment and killed 58 paratroopers, the French Army's worst day of loss since the Algerian War.

Imad Mughniyya, later a key figure in Hizbullah, was later accused of planning the attacks.

Truck and car bombings became a common weapon in Beirut; one aimed at Sheikh Muhammad Fadlallah in 1985 has sometimes been seen as a retaliation by US surrogates Hizbullah, though that group was not yet using that name in 1983.

And as we have been forcibly reminded just in the past week, the car bomb remains a weapon of choice in Beirut.

El Alamein: 70 Years Ago

"At 9:40 p.m., the barrage of over one thousand guns opened ..."

It may almost be said, "Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat."
— Winston S. Churchill,  The Hinge of Fate (History of the Second World War, Volume V), US edition,  p. 603
Seventy years ago today two great armies totaling over 300,000 men stood poised, facing each other in Egypt only some 50 miles west of Alexandria, One flank was anchored on the Mediterranean, the other on the northern edge of the Qattara depression some 40 miles to the south. Though about to launch probably the largest battle ever fought on Egyptian soil, neither army was Egyptian. Though Egypt, reoccupied by Britain at the start of the war. was nominally a British ally, the Egyptian Army was suspected of Axis sympathies.

Seventy years ago tonight, the British Eighth Army and its Australian, New Zealand, Indian, South African, Greek and Free French allies launched the artillery barrage shown in the photo above. Their commander, Lt. Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery (who would be ennobled as Viscount Montgomery of Alamein), had gone to sleep.
In the evening [of October 23, 1942] I read a book and went to bed early. At 9:40 p.m. the barrage of  over one thousand guns opened, and the Eighth Army, which included some 1200 tanks went into the attack. At that moment I sas asleep in my caravan; there4 was nothing I could do and I knew I would be needed later. There is always a crisis in every battle when the issue hangs in the balance, and I reckoned I should get what rest I could while I could. As it turned out, I was wise to have done so; my intervention was needed sooner than I expected.

—Montgomery of Alamein, Memoirs of  Field Marshal the Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, K.G., US edition, pp. 116-117
Montgomery at Alamein, later Montgomery of Alamein
As the British commander slept, the overall commander of the Axis Panzerarmee Afrika (popularly called the Afrika Korps, which was only a part of it) which faced him was on sick leave  back in  Germany. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the famous "Desert Fox," had left Lt. Gen. Georg Stumme in command of the German and Italian forces at Alamein. The day after the fight began, October 24, Stumme was at the front when he suffered a heart attack and died. Rommel rushed back hurriedly, arriving the night of October 25. Rommel would eventually see El Alamein in the same terms as the British did:
The battle which began at El Alamein on the 23rd October 1942 turned the tide of war in Africa against us and, in fact, probably represented the turning point of the whole vast struggle. The conditions under which my gallant  troops entered the battle were so disheartening that there was practically no hope of our coming out of it victorious.

The Rommel Papers, ed. by  B.H. Liddell-Hart p. 302
Rommel (at left)
The Russians who would defeat a German Army Group at Stalingrad in just a few weeks might disagree that Alamein was the turning point, but it was clearly a major one.

The turning point battle that began 70 years ago today was actually the Second Battle of El Alamein. The first, in July, had actually been the battle that stopped Rommel and fortified the position anchored on the Qattara Depression, which was too precipitate for tank operations and thus prevented the position being flanked. That battle had been fought by General Claude Auchinleck, who was then replaced by Montgomery. Auchinleck's admirers, who do not overlap at all  with Montgomery's admirers, often argue he deserves more credit than he gets for the ultimate outcome.

Before First Alamein, government offices in both Alexandria and Cairo were  burning documents and Alexandria came under German bombing; British plans were prepared to fall back to the Suez Canal if needed. That never became necessary, and after July it was not really a threat. But when the Second Battle of El Alamein ended in early November, Rommel was in full retreat, and with the American Torch landings in Algeria and Morocco soon after, the war in North Africa was dramatically transformed.

Diana Buja has some thoughts and links on the anniversary here, as well as reprinting earlier descriptions o Mersa Matruh.

And though Egyptian combat troops weren't fighting in the battle, some Egyptians are still dying as bedouin encounter mines and unexploded ordnance in that 40 mile corridor that are still lethal, as this anniversary report from The Independent reminds us. At least 17 people have been injured just this year.

World War II in the Middle East sometimes seems little remembered even in the countries affected, but I plan to look more at it as time permits, especially from local perspectives.
Positions at Start of Battle

Monday, October 22, 2012

My Only Comment on Tonight's Debate: Those Were the Days: The Great White Fleet in the Suez Canal

Everyone will be talking about the Middle East Policy substance of tonight's Foreign Policy debate between the candidates. This is not a blog about US politics, but since my nostalgia posts are well received, and since Mitt Romney has shown a certain nostalgia for the United States Navy as it was in 1916, though battleship navies seem to have faded away after Pearl Harbor, I thought it might  be appropriate to run a  couple of pictures of the Great White Fleet's transit of the Suez Canal on January 1909.
For those of you unfamiliar with it, Teddy Roosevelt sent the United States Navy on a round-the world cruise to display American power, the "big stick" part of his "speak softly and carry a big stick" policy. The cruise lasted from December 1907 to February 1909. It transited the Suez Canal in January 1909. Left, a photo from the Battleship USS Connecticut, from this US Navy site. To the best of my knowledge, the felucca in the picture was not a part of the Great White Fleet.

Below, sailors from the Great White Fleet pose at the sphinx.

Egypt to Provide Security for Qatari Ruler's Landmark Gaza Visit

It's being reported that Egypt's Republican Guard will provide security for the Amir of Qatar and his entourage during their visit to Gaza. Sheikh Hamad arrives at al-Arish tomorrow, will be flown to the Rafah Crossing in an Egyptian helicopter, and then proceed to a six-hour tour of Gaza via motorcade during which he will inaugurate reconstruction projects.

The visit has already raised hackles with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, which fears this first visit by an Arab Head of State to Gaza since Hamas took over there will legitimize Hamas; no representatives from Ramallah were invited, most obviously including President Mahmoud
‘Abbas.  Fatah has called for a boycott of the trip.

Nor is Israel happy with the seeming legitimization of Hamas,

If it is confirmed that Egypt will be providing security within Gaza,  it would also seem to further indicate a rapprochement between Egypt, now led by a President from the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Hamas regime in Gaza. Hamas originated from the Muslim Brotherhood of Gaza, an offshoot of the Egyptian Brotherhood from the days of Egyptian control in Gaza in 1948-1967.

Gregory Gause on Arab Politics Not Being About Us

On this day of the last debate between the US Presidential candidates &mdah; the one devoted to Foreign Policy — Gregory Gause has a piece at Foreign Policy  reminding anyone who will listen that "Arab Politics is Not All About Us"  in which he discusses the Romney critique of Obama's policies on Iraq and other issues in the Middle East. It's well-timed and well worth reading, though those who most need to read it probably won't.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

George S. McGovern (1922-2012) and the Middle East

Most of the appreciations of George McGovern, who died today at 90, will focus on his overall career, his 1972 run for President, his opposition to the Vietnam War,  his later career working against hunger, etc.

Amid all these distinguished accomplishments, it is easy to forget that from 1991 to 1998, Senator McGovern served as President of the Middle East Policy Council.  Though his career was not otherwise concentrated on the region, other than his consistent convictions about peace (he'd been a bomber pilot in World War II, and had standing to express his views), during those years he was indeed a presence in the Middle East community in Washington. As a member of MEPC's Advisory Board, I got to know Senator McGovern a bit — not closely, but a bit — at several meetings, on panels, and at least once at lunch. He always seemed in person just what he seemed on television: a straight-talking, intelligent but unassuming South Dakotan who was unabashed about his liberal views and unapologetic about his views. And a very nice guy. I'm sure MEPC will have something to say about him on their website, and I won't try to upstage them. I will tell one personal anecdote here. Over lunch, I mentioned to Senator McGovern that I had, in fact, voted for him back in 1972, in fact by absentee ballot from Egypt. (He was, of course, famously beaten badly by Nixon, carrying only Massachusetts and DC.) He said, "Well, let me thank you for voting for me."

This coming election will, I think, be the 12th Presidential election since I've been old enough to vote. And you know what: he's still the only Presidential candidate who's thanked me in person.

Farewell, George  McGovern. Your campaign may have seemed quixotic (and a bit chaotic), but it engaged  many disillusioned young people in politics (including, famously, Bill Clinton). They don't make them like that anymore.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Moor on the Mauritanian "Accident"

You will recall that the week began with news that Mauritania's President had been accidentally shot by his own troops. It was the sort of terrible accident where he was shot multiple times when troops accidentally ambushed the Presidential motorcade, apparently mistaking it for  I don't know — some other Presidential motorcade? Anyway, my questioning of the story in my earlier post on the subject.

 The Moor Next Door,who pays a lot of attention to Mauritania, offers some reflections on various scenarios about what might have happened.

I'm Rarely Left Speechless, But This . . .

 . . . was apparently available for your trick-or treating needs at Sears.com:
The good news: it's "no longer available."

The bad news: it apparently was.

And once again, how many times do I have to explain: that is decidedly not a burka.

And we thought "harem girl" Halloween costumes were offensive . . .

The Wissam al-Hassan Assassination

The massive car bomb in Beirut today that killed Maj. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, Head of the Information Section of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, is a reminder of the volatility of Lebanese politics and, most likely, of the continuing role of Syria, though Hizbullah is another potential suspect. Hassan had been behind the earlier detention of former Interior Minister Michel Samaha, widely seen as a close Lebanese ally of Syria.

For more on Wissam al-Hassan, see this from The Washington Post and this from Qifs Nabki, who promises more later today.

Al-Monitor has a report from the scene.

Due to Major Spam Attacks, Comments Will Be Temporarily Moderated

From the beginning of this blog, I've been as liberal as possible about comments. Anonymous comments are welcome and I have not insisted on moderation before the comments appear. In the past two weeks, though, there has been a major spam attack going on with, last weekend, over 100 postings, most of which never showed up because posts over two weeks old did have to be approved. But the attacks have continued.

I am regrettably shifting, at least temporarily, to moderated comments: usually I should be able to approve legitimate comments soon after you post them, but it's much more efficient if the comment appears only with my approval instead of my having to take down dozens of spam posts every day.

I hope I can relax this soon. Your legitimate comment will be approved as quickly as I can, but there may be delays on weekends.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Saudi Arabia to Recruit Women for Religious Police

Saudi Arabia last January named a new head for the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, known to Saudis just as the Hay'a or Commission (less formally as the mutawa‘in) and to outsiders as the Religious Police. Sheikh ‘Abd al-Latif ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al al-Sheikh has told the Saudi Gazette that the Hay'a is seeking to employ women officers for the first time; excessive beatings of women for min9r infractions, often carried out by 'volunteer" enforcers, have drawn protests and Al al-Sheikh has pledged to end abuses.

I assume the women officers will deal exclusively with women's public behavior and not interact with men.

Arabs Studying Yiddish?

I'll have more later today but have a lot of pressing business first, so I'll start your day with this piece about Arabs studying Yiddish from Al-Monitor, translated from a Hebrew original at Yediot Aharanot.

Not Hebrew, mind you, Yiddish, long frowned upon by many Israelis as the language of the European ghetto and long ago eclipsed by Hebrew. The story is at the link, but there's also an irony in that the Arab (need I say he's an Israeli Arab?) discussed first is studying Hebrew literature at Bar-Ilan University, originally founded to combine Jewish religious studies with a secular curriculum at a time when the religious current in Israel was much less strong than it is today.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Tools for Making Sense of the "Syrian Jihadis On the Rise" Theme

It's an important question: is Jihadism increasingly making itself felt in the Syrian rebellion? Are arms intended for the rebels reaching Jihadi groups ahead of more moderate ones? David Sanger in The New York Times reported the latter recently, citing classified reports:
“The opposition groups that are receiving the most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it,” said one American official familiar with the outlines of those findings, commenting on an operation that in American eyes has increasingly gone awry.
I have no great expertise on the subject under discussion, but wanted to call attention to some detailed resources that provide background, and perhaps balance, to this report (which I have no reason to doubt accurately reflects the classified documents it cites).

One always needs to keep in the forefront of the mind that the regime is eager to persuade the world that the rebels are radical jihadis, Salafis, sectarian bigots, and terrorists. No doubt some of them are. I assume readers of this blog are here because they appreciate nuance and background, and two recent reports seem to offer both detail and nuance.

One is Aron Lund's contribution at Foreign Policy, "Holy Warriors: A Field Guide to Syria's Jihadi Groups"  Lund (who often comments on this blog, though we've never met) recently published a longer study at Sweden's Foreign Policy Institute , "Syrian Jihadism," (PDF) which provides much greater detail. A shorthand conclusion from the first link:
Jihadis still make up a minority of the Syrian rebel movement and do not represent the opposition as a whole, but they punch far above their weight in terms of both military effectiveness and ideological influence. As such, they will play a role in the battle for Syria's future, though it remains to be seen just how large of a role that will be.  
Another recent effort to address the question in nuanced detail is Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group's latest report,  "Tentative Jihad: Syria's Fundamentalist Opposition."  (Link is to the Executive Summary. The full report in PDF is here.
Prematurely and exaggeratedly highlighted by the regime, belatedly and reluctantly acknowledged by the opposition, the presence of a powerful Salafi strand among Syria’s rebels has become irrefutable. That is worrisome, but forms only part of a complex picture. To begin, not all Salafis are alike; the concept covers a gamut ranging from mainstream to extreme. Secondly, present-day Syria offers Salafis hospitable terrain – violence and sectarianism; disenchantment with the West, secular leaders and pragmatic Islamic figures; as well as access to Gulf Arab funding and jihadi military knowhow – but also adverse conditions, including a moderate Islamic tradition, pluralistic confessional make-up, and widespread fear of the kind of sectarian civil war that engulfed two neighbours. Thirdly, failure of the armed push this past summer caused a backlash against Salafi groups that grabbed headlines during the fighting.
This is not to dismiss the Salafis’ weight. The opposition has a responsibility: to curb their influence, stem the slide toward ever-more radical and confessional discourse and halt brutal tactics. So too do members of the international community, quick to fault the opposition for fragmentation and radical drift that their own divisions, dysfunctionality and powerlessness have done much to foster. For as long as different countries sponsor distinct armed groups, a bidding war will ensue, and any hope of coordinating the rebels, disciplining them and restraining their most extremist members will be in vain. The issue, in other words, is not so much whether to arm them – and, if so, with what – but rather to rationalise and coordinate the support provided to the opposition in order to make more likely the emergence of a more coherent, structured, representative and thus effective interlocutor in what, sooner or later, must be a negotiated outcome. Even those who side with the regime would stand to benefit from that development, if they wish to see today’s devastating military stalemate evolve toward a political solution.
The wisest course in Syria is far from clear, but those making policy need accurate and nuanced information to make it. These sorts of studies help provide that.

Changing Times, Changing Names

I'm fairly tied up with Journal work today so here's something light to ponder, via Facebook:
the sign says "Hajj Badie and his Brothers Agency: formerly 'Sons of President Mubarak'."

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Coptic Papal Candidates Chosen, Vote Moved Up

The process of choosing a new Pope for Egypt's Coptic Church has seemed stalled for months, but in the past few days it has not only started up again but now the election date has apparently been advanced from Decenber 2 to November 4,

Pope Shenouda III died in March. The rather cumbersome election process was expected to take until July or so, but moved at a glacial pace, largely because the election of an Egyptian President was also under way. There was much speculation and plenty of rumor about political maneuvering within the Church's Holy Synod, possibly due to concerns about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and growing tensions in Coptic-Muslim relations.

In August the Church finally announced the names of 17 candidates for the position. An electoral commission was due to narrow that list from 17 to about seven, later to be submitted to a vote of seberal thousand selected Copts who will narrow it to three. The Electoral Commission began its work on October 4 and was widely expected to take until November; December 2 was named as the expected date for the Altar Lot, when a blindfolded young boy will choose one name from the final three.

But last Saturday it was suddenly announced that the Electoral Commission had narrowed the number of candidates to five. eliminating most of the best known (and most divisive) figures. It was announced that the election would be held November 24 to choose the three candidates, with the Altar Lot on December 2.  I was starting to write this post explaining events to date when it was suddenly announced that the election to narrow the list will be held October 29, less than two weeks from now, and the Altar Lot on November 4.

What had been a glacial process has in a matter of days been speeded up to elect the new Pope quickly. Whatever considerations (political and otherwise) had been slowing the process down have apparently been fixed.

My earlier attempt at handicapping the papal race on this blog discussed three key candidates. None of them made it into the final five, so you may want to consider that track record in judging my prognostication powers when it comes to choosing Coptic Popes. The controversial and divisive Bishop Bishoy, Secrertay of the Holy Synod and a man who has been "running for Pope" for years, failed to make it into the final list, as did Bishop Youannes, Patriarchal Secretary to Shenouda and a very powerful figure.

The Final Five Candidates

By choosing only five candidates rather than seven, the rest of the selection process is streamlined a bit, since the elections will choose three of the five to go to the Altar Lot. Also, only two of the five are bishops; the other three are priest-monks.  

The tradition of the Coptic Church historically was to choose the Pope from the monks (though bishops are also chosen from the monks only, not from parish priests). In the past century soeme Popes hae been chosen from the bishops. Some conservatives insist the choice of bishops is uncanonical. Shenouda was a General Bishop, a bishop without a specific see but rather head of a department in the church; some of the candidates, such as Bishoy, were both General Bishops but also held diocesan sees. The two bishops remaining under consideration, however, are a General Bishop and an Auxiliary Bishop.

The finalists are:
Bishop Tawadros: Auxiliary Bishop for Behuira, auxiliary to Bishop Bakhomius. A member of the Holy Synod, Tawadros was born in 1952 and studied pharmacy at the University of Alexandria. He was ordained in June 1997.

Bishop Raphael: Auxiliary Bishop of Central Cairo and Heliopolis, former aide to the late Pope Shenouda III and a member of the Holy Synod. Born in Cairo in 1954 and a graduate from Ain Shams University's medical faculty, Raphael was ordained as a bishop in June 1997.

The the other three candidates are priest/monks:

Father Raphael Ava Mina: A monk at the monastery of St. Mina (Mar Mina) in Alexandria governorate. He was a disciple of the late Pope Cyril (Kirillos) VI, considered by many Copts to be a saint. He is the oldest candidate; some reports give his birth as early as 1924, but 1942 seems correct, so he is 70 rather than in his late 80s. He has a law degree from the University of Ain Shams.
Father Seraphim Al-Suryani: A monk at the Virgin Mary monastery in Wadi Natrun. Born in 1959 in Cairo, Seraphim has a science degree from the University of Ain Shams.

Father Bakhomius Al-Suryani: Also monk at the monastery of Virgin Mary in Wadi Natrun. Born in Aswan in 1963, he is the youngest candidate and holds degrees in science and education.

Jordan Sets Elections January 23

Jordan has scheduled Parliamentary elections for January 23, despite opposition threats to boycott if the electoral system is not reformed.

Israel is holding elections on January 22.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Not Only Were the Pyramids Different, the Sphinx Has Had a Sex Change

In my earlier somewhat snide notes about the very odd-looking pyramids in a 1575 Italian plan of Cairo, I completely missed the real story, noted in a comment to my post by art historian Rosamond Mack, who knows Italian Orientalist art: the sphinx has obviously — again assuming the 1575 print is an accurate representation — undergone a major sex change, as shown in the image at left.

And  while the pyramids are just wildly out of proportion,  Ms. Sphinx, while losing his/her/its lion body (which indeed was covered with sand at the time), has acquired not only a hairdo and breasts, but even prominent nipples as well: no ambiguity here: she's all girl. [Yes, I know Greek sphinxes were female. The sphinx at Giza isn't Greek.]

And to think, we've been arguing for years about how it lost its nose.

An Old Hajj Tradition: The Mahmal

The Kiswa in 1910, when still made in Egypt
As we approach this year's hajj, I thought it might be time for one of my historical asides, this time on a longstanding (just about 1,000 years) tradition, discontinued half a century or more ago. (Sources conflict on the dating.) For many centuries (some say starting from the Fatimids in the 960s, others the Ayyubids a little later, until the 20th century, Egypt each year provided a new kiswa, the large cloth covering that covers the Ka‘aba in Mecca,which was sent in a caravan to Mecca from Cairo. The cloth was mounted atop of a camel and a procession left Cairo with considerable pomp and circumstance annually, on its way to Mecca; the palanquin on the main camel was known as the mahmal; it symbolized the power of the Egyptian Sultans and later the Ottoman Sultan, and originally carried the kiswa.

In the 20th century, Saudi Arabia began manufacturing the Kiswa locally, and the mahmal caravan tradition ended. Here are a few pictures of the mahmal procession, and a British Museum video clip from their Hajj exhibition.

Tunisia to Hold Elections Next June

Tunisia's transitional government has announced that legislative and Presidential elections will be held on June 23, 2013, with a Presidential runoff on July 7. 

The elections will also see a President elected by direct popular vote.

Mauritania's President "Accidentally" Shot By Army. Oops: Five Times?

Mauritanian President General Mohammed Ould Abdelaziz was flown to Paris yesterday after being shot by his own Army. Before leaving, he reassured his countrymen that it was an "acccident."

Well, sometimes if a guard doesn't have the safety engaged on his weapon ... oh, no, sorry, some reports say he was shot five times.

Well, if five of his guards didn't have their safeties properly engaged ... oh, no, sorry, apparently, they shot up the Presidential motorcade.

Well, um,  give me a minute here. Okay, would you believe: the Army was out for their weekly maneuver of shooting up random motorcades (hey, what do I know about Mauritanian Army drills?) when the Presidential limousine just happened to ...

Well, I'm sure they'll explain further. No need to be suspicious here. Move along now. Nothing to see here.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Pyramids Have Changed a Lot Since 1575

So you think the Pyramids are a symbol of the unchanging past? Well, if you believe this view of "La Gran Citta Del Cairo" by Donato Bertelli (about 1575), they've changed quite a bit in the past  437 years.

Or, of course, maybe Signor Bertelli just couldn't draw Pyramids worth a damn.

Ghannouchi "Secret Video" Causing Furor in Tunisia

Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia's Al-Nahda Party, the largest party in Parliament, has fallen into the trap Mitt Romney fell into with the "47%" video and other US politicians keep stumbling over: forgetting that everyone with a cell phone is a videographer these days, and what you say in a private meeting may end up on YouTube tomorrow. Ghannouchi, who has been the face of moderate Islamist politics in Tunisia since the Revolution, is shown cautioning his more radically Salafi discussants how to take over more elements of Tunisian society. Secularists are proclaiming that  the video shows that Al-Nahda's present moderation is for show and that Ghannouchi secretly aims at a much more radical Islamist agenda, The basic story can be found here and here;
 also an account here; reactions from various political quarters here, including Al-Nahda's attempts to explain (blaming "unfair editing": so they're using the usual playbook).

He urges the Salafists to be patient, to start up television channels and other media, and warns that "Secularists still control the economy, the media and the administration ... the army and police also are not secured," which seemed to many secularists to imply that he wants to see Islamists take over traditionally non-partisan state institutions.

The video comes as Ghannouchi prepares to step aside from the leadership of the party, and just after Larbi Sadiki had written a "Ghannouchi for President?" op-ed for Al Jazeera.

Now that the Arab World has real competitive politics, its new politicians need to learn what the rest of the world's politicians keep learning: you're always speaking on the record in the age of the smartphone.

Here's the whole video in Arabic:

Seizure of Air Defense Base Adds to Jitters Over Syria's Arsenals

Amid reports that the US and UK have both deployed some specal operations forces to Syria's neighbors in the event of a need to secure the country's chemical weapons arsenals, there are new jitters about reports that Syrian rebels have taken an Air Defense base alongside the radical Jabhat al-Nusra group, considered a jihadist movement. The base at Taaneh east of Aleppo was taken and photos of the rebels inside were released, though it is not clear that they will be able to hold it.

Free Syrian Army forces have claimed to overrun missile bases before; its chemical weapons stores are another matter entirely, and the regime insists they are secured. Syria has a very robust air defense system with missile facilities ringing its major cities, so occasionally overrunning a missile facility is not in itself that alarming, though of course the presence of radical jihadis is cause for concern.

The videos I've seen so far are old S-75 Dvina SAMs, known in Cold War days under the NATO designation SA-2 Guideline. Folks, this is the missile that shot down Francis Gary Powers' U-2 in 1960: it's half century old technology, big and hard to fire. Loose chemical weapons is a real concern; SA-2's are museum pieces.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Morsi Fires Public Prosecutor; Prosecutor Unfires Self; Judges Say He's Unfired

 Egypt's Public Prosecutor, Abdel Maguid Mahmoud, a Mubarak era leftover,. or "remnant" in the popular parlance, is not a popular man. The Islamists don't like him and neither do the left, revolutionaries, human rights activists, etc,, because he has jailed many of them. When the courts yesterday acquitted those charged with carrying out the notorious "Battle of the Camel," President Morsi seized the opportunity to announce that he had removed the Prosecutor in order to name him Ambassador to the Vatican. When it was pointed out that the President apparently has no authority to fire the Prosecutor, Morsi seemingly clarified matters by saying he had asked Mahmoud to resign. Mahmoud then clarified his position by saying he wasn't resigning, he wasn't fired, and he wasn't going anywhere. Now there are reports that the Judges' Syndicate, which doesn't like the Muslim Brotherhood and stands up for an independent judiciary, is backing Mahmoud.

Like the Presidential election runoff itself, these clashes where the choice is the Muslim Brotherhood or the falool (remnants) of Mubarak's regime tend to leave me wondering if there's a way they can both lose, but this looks like it may go on for a while.

Has Turkey Overextended Itself in Syria Confrontation?

Turkey continues to talk tough on Syria, with border shelling, yesterday's interception of a Syrian civilian aircraft and seizure of ammunition aboard, and a drumbeat of threats and posturing. This has led some serious observers, such as Robert Wright in The Atlantic, to fear that Turkey and Syria, though neither wants it, may be on a course for war.

At least for now, count me among the skeptics. If anything, I suspect Turkey has climbed out on a limb and has noticed that it's rather lonely out there. Most of the belligerent language coming from the US these days is towards Iran,  with a month left in a Presidential election campaign; Syria is not completely off the radar, but it's hardly central.

I think Andrew Parasaliti's judgment in Al=Monitor is on target, "As Assad Hangs On, Turkey Confronts Failure in Syria":
Turkish intervention in Syria is unpopular and Ankara may be desperate to end it.  A clear majority of Turkish citizens oppose intervention in Syria, according to a recent poll. Just two years ago, Turkey prospered under a “good neighbor” policy with Syria, Iran and Iraq.  Now Turkey has problems along all three borders . . .
Prime Minister Erdogan’s government, on the front lines, seems now to realize the futility of its current policies.  Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said this week that Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa would be a suitable transitional figure. Abdulbaset Sieda, the head of the opposition Syrian National Congress (SNC), backed by Turkey, also expressed a willingness to consider engagement with members of Syria’s Ba’th government and said an opposition meeting next week in Doha would consider next steps and a role for Sharaa.
And Aaron Stein and Dov Friedman at The National Interest note that Turkey's military options are limited: 
Yet Turkey’s proportional response may stem less from high-mindedness and more from a startlingly limited array of options. Turkey’s intelligence-collection capabilities are limited, making target selection difficult and the possibility of air strikes remote. While it could have sent military aircraft to strike Syrian sites, Syria’s capable air defenses complicated the decision. Turkey remembers very well what Syrian air defenses can do to a Turkish fighter jet, and the potential for casualties factored into Turkey’s response.

Erdogan and other AKP officials have periodically floated a buffer zone, and in theory, Turkey might have taken advantage of this opportunity to follow through on its oft-repeated threat. Turkey could have argued it needed to invade to push Syrian artillery out of range of Turkish cities and villages. However, deploying ground forces over five civilian deaths would have thrust Turkey even deeper into the Syrian conflict and risked moving too far out in front of its Western and Arab allies. The Erdogan government alone simply could not risk igniting full-scale conflict with Syria, nor could it risk being reined in by the intervention-wary members of NATO.
And Sami Kohen in Turkey's Milliyet buys onto the out-on-a-limb interpretation:
It is obvious that the international community, including Western allies, don’t want a Syria-Turkey war or a military intervention by Turkey. NATO doesn’t want to risk being drawn into such a clash. Arab countries are mute. Saudi Arabia and Qatar (under US pressure) have stopped supplying heavy weapons to the Syrian opposition. In short, the point we have reached is total isolation of Turkey in its friction with Syria, except occasional verbal support and expressions of sympathy.

There is no point in blaming only the others for the situation. What we must acknowledge is that our government miscalculated the potential reactions and attitudes of the international community, including our allies, while planning the steps to take with Syria.
It is not too late for Ankara to readjust its policies according to this reality.
Turkey is sophisticated enough to understand the geopolitics of the situation and the risks inherent in letting the border exchanges spin out of control. While eager to see Asad gone, it can hardly welcome the prospect of a disintegration of Syria or a power vacuum. Nor is it pleased by the fact that, as this blog has noted previously, Syrian Kurds have displayed PKK flags alongside those of Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government. Turkey's best interests lie in some sort of managed transition in Syria, not in an unpredictable and uncontrollable civil war. Turkey's military is large and well-trained, but Syria has formidable air defense and the Turkish Air Force would face a major challenge in trying to suppress it.

Of course, there is always a danger when two countries are engaging in a low-level border conflict that something will spin out of the control of either side. That's why Turkey, finding itself rather overextended, may be looking for ways to stand down a bit from the current level of confrontation, as Andrew Parasaliti suggested they are doing with the Farouk al-Sharaa proposal.

Israeli Elections Likely on January 22

Israeli elections will be held January 22, according to press reports citing the Prime Minister's office's draft proposal for the dissolution of the Knesset. (In the Israeli system, the Knesset dissolves itself, which is expected to occur by early next week.)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Dubai Now, Building a Bigger Taj Mahal; and Dubai Then (1907)

You've probably already heard this elsewhere, but what do you do when you already have the world's tallest building and the Persian Gulf's first indoor ski slope? Well, Dubai's next project is to build a replica of the Taj Mahal as a hotel and wedding destination. It will be called Taj Arabia. But wait for it — this is Dubai, after all — it will be four times the size of the one in Agra. It will also cost $1.2 billion or thereabouts. Shows you what Shah Jahan could have done if he'd had money.

Why? I don't really know. Maybe because they didn't have one yet?

Just for the hell of it I thought I'd remind everyone that a century ago Dubai was a very different sort of place. I've talked about Lorimer's Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf before, and here's "Dibai Town" as he calls it, in Volume IIA, pp. 454-456 as it was around 1907:

The Life, and 222-Year Extended Afterlife, of the Maria Theresa Dollar

Maria Theresa as She Was
The Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria-Hungary (Kaiserin Maria-Theresia in German) was the only Empress in the Austrian Hapsburg dynasty as Holy Roman Empress and Archduchess of Austria; her 40 year reign (1740-1780) and 16 children guaranteed her a role in European royal genealogies and various 18th century wars.  But at least outside of the former Austria-Hungary, that is not how she is best known today. The standard silver coin of her reign, the Austrian thaler was considered a standard and stable unit of currency,and was coined throughout her reign. (The choice of "dollar" as the name of the currency of the new United States was certainly influenced by the reputation of the thaler.) Then she died in 1780. But her coinage did not.

As the Middle East Knows Her
As late as 2002, the Austrian mint struck a special production of coins with her image and the date 1780. They weren't counterfeit, and other mints across Europe had struck similar coins with the image of a long-dead Empress and the date 1780 during the 222 intervening years since her death, quite legally if the silver content was correct. Britain was the last to cease regular minting in the early 1960s. In Africa and the Middle East the Maria Theresa "Dollar" (riyal nimsawi or "Austrian riyal" in Gulf Arabic) was the standard "trade coinage" acceptable in the souqs of the whole region, the trusted silver coin. The long-dead Empress and her familiar buxom profile, the Hapsburg double eagle on the back, and the date of 1780 were more reliable than the coinage of local rulers, Ottoman Sultans, or colonial powers. The UK minted them since its Gulf dependencies long preferred them to Sterling. The British counterfeiting laws made counterfeiting Maria Theresa Thalers just as illegal as counterfeiting British sovereigns.

This 2003 article in Saudi Aramco World gives a good summary of the coin's career in the Gulf. An excerpt:
And wherever it was used, the coin was subjected to careful scrutiny. "Locals would count the number of pearls on Maria Theresa's oval brooch, or check the feathers on the imperial eagle. (These were the features that the names abu nuqta and abu reesh refer to.) Recipients would reject coins out of hand if they did not precisely match the original 1780 strike," explains Semple.
"Semple" is Clara Semple, whose book,  A Silver Legend: The Story of the Maria Theresa Thaler sounds fascinating,  though from its current Amazon listing appears to be unavailable, at least at my budget. A good review of the book in The Guardian, however, does open with a good story:
At Talh market in northern Yemen, I once watched an old man pay for a fresh clip of Kalashnikov ammunition with some weighty silver coins. Neither Yemeni or Saudi riyals, these reassuringly hefty discs were date-stamped 1780 and bore the image of a large busty woman on one side, an impressively feathery eagle on the other. They were silver dollars of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the woman was Maria Theresa, empress from 1740 to 1780.

Despite generous offers from the market-trader to sell me various machine guns, bazookas and even a tank ("only two days to deliver!"), I bought the money from him instead, paying a small premium to avoid some obvious forgeries. Little did I know that in some senses all the coins were forgeries, and a bright copy made in the sands of Talh the day before was at least as interesting as my supposed originals. Those, as Clara Semple points out in her intriguing book, could easily have been minted in Birmingham in the 1950s, or Brussels, London, Paris, Bombay, Rome or Vienna at some time in the previous two centuries - almost all had that 1780 date. As for rarity, around 400 million are known to have been issued in that period.
The review concludes:
These days the use as a trade currency is all but gone. Gold has replaced silver as the jewellery metal of choice and the American dollar as the currency. The generous bosom of Maria Theresa is only found in tourist bazaars and antique jewellery. To my intense pleasure, however, the last photograph in this delightful book is of that Yemeni market at al-Talh, a trader surrounded - just as I remember - with rifles, pistols and piles of Maria Theresa dollars. For a splendid moment I was back there, reliving my fantasy of becoming the first, and last, man to buy a T-64 Soviet tank with an 18th-century treasure trove.
 I'm not sure if he'd have been the first, and given the current situation in Yemen (the review is from 2006), I'm not sure no one has bought a T-64 with Maria Theresas by now. Silver is still silver.

There are earlier instances of currency strikes that continued long beyond the death of the monarch. One that may have endured even longer than Maria Theresa are the coins of Alexander the Great, though they were not copied with either the fidelity or the reliability of the content of their specie as the Maria Theresa. Bad copies of Alexander's  coins were still being circulated in Nabataea and Arabia (and even in Italy), areas he never even conquered, centuries after his death.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Early Elections in Israel

Binyamin Netanyahu's announcement that he will call early elections (ostensibly because his present coalition will be unable to agree on a budget) came as no real surprise; since he said elections should be held as soon as possible (which is 90 days after dissolution of the Knesset), the election date is  likely to be in January. Many were already predicting elections by February, since Netanyahu is believed to think he will improve Likud's position by going to early elections; elections are required by October 2013. Last spring there was speculation about early elections; then Shaul Mofaz and Kadima agreed to join a grand coalition and keep the government in power throughout its life span. But Mofaz soon broke with Netanyahu and went back into opposition.

We'll be talking more about the elections as the campaign gets under way, but clearly an election cycle makes a military strike against Iran in the next three months highly unlikely.

Maspero One Year Later

Of all the tragic violence during the Egyptian Revolution and the more than a year of  military rule that followed, perhaps the most explosive of all occurred a year ago today, when at least 27 protesters were killed in an attempted march from Shubra to the Radio-Television building, known as "Maspero." Most of the demonstrators were Copts, and broadcasters on state television were openly inciting to violence with anti-Coptic comments. In the end, security forces used armored personnel carriers to run over protesters in the street and on elevated roadways where they had no route of escape. It was a bloody day made worse by the deliberate incitement to sectarian violence. Egypt's Christians remain insecure and lost faith in the intentions of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a loss of faith not really alleviated by the transfer of power to a President from the Muslim Brotherhood. There was a new march today to remember the dead of the day now known by the shorthand of "Maspero." It is also worth noting that no one has yet been punished judicially for the killings, except three APC drivers sentenced to two and three years for "negligence" (and that not till last month).

For my own coverage at the time, my initial comments were here, and a few days later I explained how the 19th century French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero's name became inextricably linked to a human rights outrage..

For the anniversary, Egypt Independent reprints Sarah Carr's dramatic firsthand account from last year. (Also see her comments on the present situation.)  Ahram Online coiments on the continuing failure to bring the real culprits to justice, and has memories of Mina Danial, the 19-year-old Copt who became the symbol of those who died at Maspero. The same paper re-links to its two-part investigation into the timeline of events from last November, here and here.

Others are also remembering, or linking to their original posts: The Arabist here; Sandmonkey here;while Zeinobia looks back here and then discusses today's march here.

Though President Morsi has now proclaimed an amnesty for those protesters arrested and tried by military tribunals since the revolution,  it would be nice to believe that the deaths at Maspero had been punished; but there has been a virtual amnesty all along for the Military :Police and State Security forces. It would also be nice if Maspero had served to persuade the state to live up to its own rhetoric about Christians and Muslims being equal citizens. A year later, though, neither has occurred.