A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, November 30, 2012

Two Versions of Morsi's Friday Prayer

 President Morsi had a curious experience at Friday Prayer today, though there are varying accounts of what precisely occurred. The state-run Ahram Online says only this:
The president had to intervene to contain the anger of some worshippers during Friday prayers in an upscale district of Cairo, when the mosque’s preacher dedicated his sermon to defending Morsi’s latest decisions. "My dear brother, the one who is angry, please come and explain to me why you are angry. It’s your right and it’s my duty [to explain]," Morsi said in the mosque, drawing applause from worshippers. "After prayers, we will talk for a few minutes," the president said. "I hope you will all listen."
So the President conciliated some dissidents gathered for Friday prayer. The story the Egypt Independent tells is much more confrontational:
Worshippers at Hassan al-Sharbatly Mosque in New Cairo protested against President Mohamed Morsy while he was attending prayers there Friday, when the imam of the mosque tried to justify the president’s recent decisions.
“Prophet Mohamed and the Caliphs used to dismiss and appoint judges, and there is no problem with Morsy doing that,” the imam said, according to an eyewitness. The imam was referring to Morsy’s dismissal of the prosecutor general, which was deemed a staggering interference of the president in judicial matters.  
But worshippers stopped the imam and protested his likening Morsy to the Prophet.
The atmosphere was charged following the prayers, with some worshippers chanting, “Down with the rule of the supreme guide,” referring to the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsy hails.
Meanwhile, Morsy supporters in the crowd chanted the president’s name.
“The imam made a mistake and the president is to be blamed,” retired professor Hassan Abdel Kader, who was praying close to the president, told Egypt Independent. “What the imam said angered the people and created a hubbub,” he added. “His sermon was immediately interrupted by angry worshippers.”
The ensuing chaos remained for a few minutes following the prayer. The imam asked people to calm down, saying, “No voice should be louder than the chant of ‘There is no God but Allah.’”
To end the chaos, some people called for prayer. As soon as the prayer ended, “the hubbub returned again, even more strongly,” said Hassan Awad, a retired army general, who attended the prayer.
After the end of the prayer, Morsy took the microphone and talked to the worshippers, assuring them of the independence of the judiciary.
“Morsy contained the protesters smartly, and acknowledged the judges’ rights, but at the same time his decisions are not in line with what he said in the mosque,” said Awad. Abdel Kader said Morsy asked to talk with some of the protesters, and four young men went to talk with him for about 15 minutes.

Adel Ibrahim, a journalist at Al-Ahram state daily, who attended the prayer, said four buses carrying pro-Morsy people came to attend the prayer. A security guard confirmed that. Ibrahim added that worshippers were annoyed before the start of the prayer because of the tight security measures.   
That would seem to tell a rather different story.  I wasn't there, but have seen versions where Presidential security had to protect Morsi, at least initially. Strictly speaking, the two accounts are not directly in conflict,  but they certainly paint different pictures.

Another Constitution, Another Demonstration

This photo is of a student demonstration protesting a constitution in Egypt. Unlike today's protests of the new, hastily written draft constitution, this took place nearly 80 years ago.
The protesters are demanding the retraction of the Constitution of 1930 and the restoration of the Constitution of 1923. The caption says that the photo dates from 1935, which would date it after the King's abrogation of the 1930 Constitution on November 30, 1934, though the 1923 Constitution as not restored until December 12, 1935, after a little over a year with neither constitution officially in force.

Constituent Assembly of 1923 (Al-Ahram)
In my earlier post on the 1923-24 Egyptian elections, I mentioned the Constitution of 1923, which followed formal Egyptian independence and the return of Sa‘ad Zaghloul. That Constitution was liberal for its era, though the franchise was limited to males. It was drawn up by a committee of 30.

The 1923 Constitution (and virtually the whole period down to the 1952 Revolution) was characterized by a power struggle between the populist Wafd Party and the King, with the British forming a third power center, despite nominal Egyptian independence. After the British Governor General of the Sudan and head of the Egyptian Army, was assassinated in 1924, the British made sharp demands of the Egyptian Government and Zaghloul resigned as Prime Minister.

Ismail Sidqi
During the rest of the 1920s the King frequently suspended Parliament and power struggles broke out within the Wafd and between the Wafd and the Palace, so the 1923 Constitution was functioning sporadically at best. The rise of Ismail Sidqi as the new political strongman in 1930 led to an attempt to replace it. Sidqi, a former Wafdist who had shared Zaghloul's exile, had split with the Wafd and created a reactionary government in 1930.

Sidqi oversaw the writing of a  new Constitution in 1930 which reduced the number of Deputies from 235 to only 150, gave more power to the already-powerful Throne, and sharply restricted the franchise both financially and in terms of professional qualifications, as well as indirect election of deputies by notables. It was a sharply less liberal Constitution than that of 1923.

Sidqi lost power in 1933 and popular demonstrations led the King to abrogate the 1930 Constitution in late 1934, as noted above. For the next year the Cabinet ruled without a Constitution; finally in December 1935 the "People's Constitution" of 1923 was restored.

The 1923 Constitution remained in effect until the Revolution of 1952 and the overthrow of the Monarchy. The struggle between King, Wafd, and the British (notably in the Abdin Incident of 1942) remained an issue for most of that period.

The Draft Egyptian Constititon

As women's rights group, human rights groups and others protest the rushed, Islamist-dominated draft Egyptian constitution, Egypt Independent  has published a complete English text. And the BBC has a useful parallel comparison of the 1971 Constitution and the proposed draft. 

I'm sure e'l see ore detailed analyses coming, and I may make a few comments of my own. Stand by.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Egypt's Overnight Constitution

 Okay, you guys have until midnight to finish this . . .
They took more time in Philadelphia
Egypt's Constituent Assembly, still fearing possible dissolution by the courts though protected by President Morsi's decree, and with most of its secularists, Christians, and other non-Islamists boycotting, spent last night finishing writing the Constitution: overnight. And today they started voting on it article by article, working far into the night. President Morsi plans to call a referendum as soon as it passes.

Ramming through a Constitution written mostly by Islamists is not going to calm the tensions in Egypt. The Constitution can probably pass a referendum: the Islamists are strong in the countryside, if not in Cairo. But the method seems to guarantee that the Constitution will not  be accepted by key elements in Egyptian society. There must be a better way to do this. For one example, see the painting above.

Also, Egyptian political humor being what it is, this is making the rounds on the Internet:
Arab Republic of Egypt
Referendum Ballot on the Constitution of Egypt
___ Agree
___ Kafir (Unbeliever, Infidel)

The US can Still Count on Palau and Nauru

The UN General Assembly has voted to grant non-member observer status to the Palestinian Authority. The largely symbolic gesture as predictably opposed by both the US and Israel. Ah, but when I put it that way it sounds as if only the US and Israel were opposed.  Though the UK and Germany and other key countries (a total of 41) abstained, several countries did indeed vote with the US and Israel: we were joined by Canada, the Czech Republic, and the powerful coalition of Nauru, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Micronesia and Panama. Two neighbors and a smattering of island nations, most of them former US territories, plus the Czechs.

November 29, 1947 and November 29, 2012: Is 65 Years Long Enough?

If all goes according to plan, the United Nations General Assembly will vote today on whether the Palestinian Authority should be admitted as a "Non-Member Observer State." Because such a calamity would cause several planets to spin out of their orbits and crash into the sun, the US (and Israel) are opposed. The vote will have a mostly symbolic impact, though Israel may retaliate against the Palestinian Authority in ways that are not at all symbolic.

But there is one major piece of symbolism that has received very little comment in the US media, at least so far as I've seen. (A major exception is Lior Sternfeld's column over at Juan Cole's blog a couple of days ago: "'Let the Palestinians Have Their Kaf Tet be-November.") 

As Sternfeld explains:
On November 29, 1947 the UN general assembly granted the Zionist movement one of its most prominent diplomatic achievements, when it approved the Palestine Partition Plan. The non-binding resolution, never voted on by the UN Security Council, proposed dividing the land of the British mandate into a Jewish State and an Arab-Palestinian state. The Palestinian leadership rejected the UNGA resolution as giving away a substantial amount of territory to which they felt what they viewed as foreign settlers had no right. In contrast, Jews welcomed the idea of partition in principle (though they did not commit to settled borders for Israel) and they moved forward to establish the state of Israel.

Kaf-Tet means 29 in Hebrew letters, and to date every Israeli child can tell by heart what Kaf-Tet Be’November is, even if he does not know what or when November is. Every Israeli child recognizes the old radio recording of the voting process and thus know how Argentina and Australia voted on this issue (abstention and yes respectively). The war that erupted immediately afterwards and the bloodshed that has transpired since prevented the full implementation of the solution.
Yes. Today marks the anniversary of the United Nations vote in 1947 to partition the Palestine Mandate into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. (You may recall a dramatic scene in the movie Exodus, which explained how blue-eyed Paul Newman and blonde Eva Marie Saint founded Israel, in wh8ch listeners wait for the radio account of the roll call.) Yes, the Arabs rejected partition then. But 65 years have passed, and there's something like a consensus for a '"two state solution" but little will to get there.

The Palestinians chose a significant date for their new bid for legitimacy, but other than the post above I've seen little comment on the 65th anniversary of Kaf-Tet be-November.


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Omar Dajani on "Arafat's Ghost"

The exhumation of Yasser Arafat's body has to be one of the more bizarre and macabre stories of the year, and I must confess I have no idea what the results may be. It's of some personal nterest since my netime MEI colleague Clayton Swisher, now with Al Jazeera English, dug up the story that led them to di g up Arafat. I tend to be skeptical of conspiracy theories, but this is the Middle East, and he had many enemies. (I think Palestinians are reflexively assuming that if he was poisoned it must have been Israel, but a real conspiracy theorist ought to be able to come up with something more Byzantine than that.)

Omar Dajani's post yesterday at Foreign Policy, "Arafat's Ghost," neatly ties the exhumation with the UN vote on Palestine. It's worth a read.

Polarization in Egypt and the Excluded Middle

The confrontations in Egypt are perhaps all the more dangerous because both sides claim — and I suspect believe sincerely —that they are on the side of democracy. President Morsi's supporters (the Muslim Brotherhood and others) see him as duly elected, and taking a stand against an entrenched bureaucracy and judiciary, much of which consists of Mubarak era "remnants." In fact, I suspect some of Morsi's moves are widely popular: firing the hated State Prosecutor,blocking the courts from dissolving elected institutions like the Shura Council, etc.

But his decree went beyond blocking the courts from interfering with elected institutions, giving himself powers with no oversight whatsoever. The overreach is the problem. And the Brotherhood, while correctly noting  Morsi won an election, overlooks the fact that he did so with 51% of the vote (and got less than 25% in the first round. Not a huge mandate.)

His opponents, however, must recognize that while he has overreached, he does have a legitimacy they were unable to achieve at the polls.

If one side is taking a straight majoritarian approach to democracy: we won, so we get to make the rules; then the other side is taking the approach of denying him any legitimacy despite his electoral victory.

The problem is that democracy requires, , if it is to function properly, both the rule of the majority and a protection of the rights of the minority. The polarization in Egypt (which reflects a polarization of society) excludes any room for negotiation and compromise (so far), with even "liberals" like Mohamed ElBaradei speaking of non-negotiable demands. It's the problem of the excluded middle: both sides see democracy as a zero-sum game. (The fact that many of these statements could also be applied to the "fiscal cliff" discussions in the US Congress at the moment is purely coincidental.)

It's time both sides stepped back a bit and remembered that if the polarized sides do not find a way to work within a democratic frame, someone else, perhaps someone in uniform, will perhaps feel obliged to act.

A Turning Point in Syria?

The claims made by the Free Syrian Army always need to be taken with a grain of salt.  This would be extraordinary if true
What is clear, however, is that the FSA has captured a string of small air defense bases in recent days and captured both AA guns and shoulder-launched SAMs, and that it has successfully used these in at least one or two cases; the video below is said to show a MiG-23 downed by the rebels:

Josh Landis talks with France24 about the shift:

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Site of Tahrir Before Automobiles

As protesters return to Midan al-Tahrir, a look at the area in front of the Egyptian Muesum in the days before automobiles, from this site.  (Before it was Midan al-Tahrir, it was Midan Ismailiyya.) For more on the h8story of the square and its environs, see my "A Brief Biography of Tahrir Square"; also posts on the origin of the name Maspero; another on the man for whom Tahrir's Umar Makram mosque is named; and on the ugly 1970s raised walkway around the square.

Back to Tahrir

The massive protests today converged on Tahrir Square from multiple parts of Cairo, protesting first of all President Morsi's constitutional declaration, but also increasingly targeting the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood's decision to cancel its own originally planned counter-demonstration may have helped avoid greater bloodshed, but the extraordinary turnout shows the level of anger in the country, or at least in the capital.

Monday, November 26, 2012

90 Years Ago Today: "Yes. Wonderful Things."

Ninety years ago today, November 26, 1922, archaeologist Howard Carter and his patron, Lord Carnarvon, prepared to open the second door to what would turn out to be the tomb of Tutankhamun. In his book, The Tomb of Tutankhamun, Carter recalled:
...as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold - everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment - an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by - I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, 'Can you see anything?' it was all I could do to get out the words, 'Yes, wonderful things.”
Carter's journal tells the story in fuller form:
It was sometime before one could see, the hot air escaping caused the candle to flicker, but as soon as one's eyes became accustomed to the glimmer of light the interior of the chamber gradually loomed before one, with its strange and wonderful medley of extraordinary and beautiful objects heaped upon one another. There was naturally short suspense for those present who could not see, when Lord Carnarvon said to me `Can you see anything'. I replied to him Yes, it is wonderful. I then with precaution made the hole sufficiently large for both of us to see. With the light of an electric torch as well as an additional candle we looked in. Our sensations and astonishment are difficult to describe as the better light revealed to us the marvellous collection of treasures: two strange ebony-black effigies of a King, gold sandalled, bearing staff and mace, loomed out from the cloak of darkness; gilded couches in strange forms, lion-headed, Hathor-headed, and beast infernal; exquisitely painted, inlaid, and ornamental caskets; flowers; alabaster vases, some beautifully executed of lotus and papyrus device; strange black shrines with a gilded monster snake appearing from within; quite ordinary looking white chests; finely carved chairs; a golden inlaid throne; a heap of large curious white oviform boxes; beneath our very eyes, on the threshold, a lovely lotiform wishing-cup in translucent alabaster; stools of all shapes and design, of both common and rare materials; and, lastly a confusion of overturned parts of chariots glinting with gold, peering from amongst which was a mannikin. The first impression of which suggested the property-room of an opera of a vanished civilization. Our sensations were bewildering and full of strange emotion. We questioned one another as to the meaning of it all. Was it a tomb or merely a cache? A sealed doorway between the two sentinel statues proved there was more beyond, and with the numerous cartouches bearing the name of Tut.ankh.Amen on most of the objects before us, there was little doubt that there behind was the grave of that Pharaoh.
We closed the hole, locked the wooden-grill which had been placed upon the first doorway, we mounted our donkeys and return home contemplating what we had seen.

MEI Annual Conference Videos, Transcripts Now Online

This year's Middle East Institute Annual Conference videos, podcasts and transcripts are now available online through this page.

Morsi's Constitutional Coup

At Mohammed Mahmoud Entrance to Tahrir:
"Entry Prohibited to the Brotherhood"
The photo above is of Cairo's Mohammed Mahmoud Street, where it enters Tahrir Square (and thus two highly symbolic places to the Egyptian Revolution join): the banner reads "No entry for Ikhwan" (the Brotherhood). It's one reflection of the anger that has erupted in Egypt since Muhammad Morsi's constitutional coup/power grab last Thursday.

It was Thanksgiving Day here when Morsi staged his preemptive strike against the judiciary, just as he made his move against the army last August when I was on vacation. I'm getting a little tired of his sense of timing. This time I pondered posting over the holiday but since there was no shortage of commentary available over the US holiday weekend, I decided to hold off and see how events evolved over a few days.

Before I comment myself, a "suggested readings" of the debate so far. First, the English text of the "Constitutional Declaration" itself.  Each of the first five articles can probably be defended by Morsi's supporters and defenders. It's Article VI that one immediately trips over, though: "The President may take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution." If that doesn't mean he can do anything he wants to, then what does it mean?

Of comments so far, if you haven't already seen them, check out Nathan Brown here and here,  Issandr El Amrani here and here, Mark Lynch here, Tarek Radwan here, "M.R." (Max Rodenbeck I presume) at The Economist blog here, Bassem Sabry at Al-Monitor here, Seifeldin Fawzy at Jadaliyya here, and my apologies to all the commentary I haven't mentioned here.

And in the Twitterverse, whoever originated the hashtag #Morsillini (Morsi + Mussolini) is also deserving of mention.

What can I add to all the words already written? Well. while I agree with those commentators who think that there is room for compromise and for Morsi to back down a bit, either by guaranteeing an expiration date for his decrees or backing off on the most draconian of them, I worry that the window for compromise may be closing. People are dying in the streets again. Worse, clashes between protestors and the Brotherhood in provincial cities like Damanhur and Tanta raise the prospect of spreading social conflict. Whatever Morsi's real intentions, if his Muslim Brotherhood allies and their secular opponents come to see the conflict as a zero-sum game, options for compromise may vanish.  Already those who said all along that the Brotherhood's commitment to democracy would fade once it had won an election are starting to appear vindicated, and those, myself included, who felt the MB deserved a chance to prove it really was committed to pluralism are feeling betrayed.

If the Brotherhood indeed is determined to control the writing of the Constitution and thus ensure its own dominance, the question will be whether it has the strength to pull it off. Morsi won quite narrowly, and his 51.73% of the vote included a great many "lesser of two evils" voters who feared Ahmad Shafiq even more. In the multi-candidate first round, Morsi only got 24.78% of the vote. Not exactly a mandate for personal rule. The number of people coming to Morsi's defense shows his support may go beyond the Brotherhood itself, and certainly some of his moves (such as dumping the hated Mubarak-era Prosecutor) are popular.But has he overreached? It looks like it, but it also looks like the Brotherhood is ready for some sort of showdown.

The disunity among the liberal and secular parties and political forces is of course well known, and while they may be better organized than they were a year ago for the Parliamentary elections, their ability to face down Morsi and the  Islamist bloc is still slender.

Certainly I suspect Morsi has wasted much of the international credit he was receiving for his role in the Gaza cease-fire; his overseas press turned around 180 degrees overnight. But will domestic unrest ad foreign criticism be enough to force him to back down, or will he hang tough and rule autocratically? Some combination of Brotherhood discipline, Islamist fervor and traditional Egyptian respect for centralized authority could let him succeed, but not without a strong opposition movement and perhaps a new revolutionary effort, though perhaps doomed to failure without the Islamists supporting it. Scenarios could range from a religious dictatorship (Iran is not a good parallel, though) through a spectrum of ongoing conflict (a spectrum anywhere from dissidence to civil war), or, of course, to Morsi meaning what he says when he says the powers are "temporary." (Mubarak's 30+ year state of emergency was also temporary.)

And, of course, there's always the elephant in the room. Does Morsi have the Army's loyalty? His August coup against the senior Army leadership succeeded with the acquiescence of the younger generals, all of whom received promotions. Some are no doubt Brotherhood sympathizers, but there was no selective purge, just a retirement of the upper echelon. No one knows what the military's current loyalties may be, but if violence deepens, either between protesters and the police or between the Brotherhood and secularists, the Army might be tempted to move. But no one is really sure what they are thinking, or even if they are united in a single viewpoint. (The same can be said for the various Interior Ministry forces, not so long ago the enemies of the Brotherhood but today defending Morsi in the streets.)

The bottom line for now I think: it's not to late for a strategic retreat by Morsi that preserves most of his goals but reassures society, but the longer things spin out of control, the less likely a compromise becomes. And that could be bad news indeed.

"Roads of Arabia" is Definitely Worth Seeing

A week ago I noted the opening of the"Roads of Arabia" exhibit at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery of Asian Art, linking to the exhibition's website and a couple of favorable reviews.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend I was able to see the exhibit and want to say here that it lives up to its advanced billing. Based around the theme of its title, from the early incense routes across the Peninsula to the pilgrimage routes in the Islamic period, it showcases archaeological finds from Saudi Arabia from early paleolithic tools to the present (the last room is devoted to King Abd al-Aziz Al Saud), but with an unusually strong emphasis on the pre-Islamic period, once rarely mentioned in the Kingdom. While fairly well-known sites like Mada'in Salih are represented, there is material from Tayma and other sites in the northwest, from Gulf coast sites like Tarut Island and other outposts of the Dilmun culture, and later sites on down into the Islamic period.

One is struck by the clear influence of multiple neighboring civilizations. The so-called Hamra Cube, an altar pedestal from Tayma (5th-4th century BCE), mixes clearly Egyptian motifs with Mesopotamian and local themes. (Photo, right, from the exhibition website.) Inscriptions in a range of languages and scripts are on display, with Aramaic and Nabatean mixing with inscriptions in South Arabian script and several in Greek, and at least one in Latin. In the Islamic period there are many early Kufic tombstones and a magnificent set of silver gilt doors made for the Kaaba in the Ottoman period.

I can definitely recommend it if you're in the Washington area or will pass through between now and February 24; it's due to visit Houston, Chicago and San Francisco after here.

And for those who can't, or those like me who can't resist, there's a massive and beautifully produced (if pricy) book of the exhibition.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving: May Your Turkey Not Be Mummified

To my American readers: Happy Thanksgiving. May your turkey not turn out mummified, like this fowl of some sort on a platter from an Egyptian tomb which the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago posted as their Thanksgiving greeting.

Since it's a four-day holiday weekend here I will not be posting much, but events may require an occasional comment. In the meantime, let me also offer, a few days in advance,‘Ashura greetings to Shi‘ite readers and others.

If the Ceasefire Holds ...

A ceasefire has finally been announced, after further escalation such as today's bus bombing in Tel Aviv. If the ceasefire holds, who will be the winners and losers?

Egypt and President Morsi have the most to gain, I suspect; if the ceasefire holds many Israelis will be reassured that a Muslim Brotherhood President is not automatically inimical to Egyptian-Israeli peace. By the same token, if Egypt is the guarantor of the ceasefire and it unravels, Egypt loses. And if new weapons enter Gaza during the ceasefire, it will likely blame Egypt.

The main combatants had both gone out on a limb with no easy way to back down. A ground invasion has been tried before, without eliminating the danger of rocket fire. Reoccupation of Gaza would like increase IDF casualties.  But while there was no easy military solution, there is criticism in Israel that the government has failed to end the threat. It's not yet clear whether Netanyahu's decision to escalate by killing the Hamas military chief will work in his favor in the upcoming elections, or the opposite.

It seems to me that this particular outburst of violence has accomplished little for either side, unless this ceasefire leads to some genuine understanding that both ends the rocket threat to Israeli cities and relaxes the harsh siege of Gaza. Unless that happens, it will have been just another spasm of violence.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Return to Mohamed Mahmoud

Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which runs from Tahrir Square past the American University in Cairo and on in the direction of Egypt's Interior Ministry, became a major battlefield a year ago during the violence of November and December; it as there that journalist Mona ElTahawy was arrested, abused and had her arms broken, though she was merely the best-known and most outspoken of the victims. Later the street became known for its graffiti street murals.  As I noted at the time, I had lived in the late 1970s on the corner of Mohamed Mahmoud and Yusuf al-Gindi Streets, at the heart of the battlefield.

Yesterday and today, demonstrators returned to the street to mark the first anniversary of the battle; what was intended as a memorial protest became politicized and clashes are continuing into a second night. Last year the anger was clearly aimed at the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces; this year the target is more diffuse, though President Morsi, justice for last year's victims, and the police all seem to have their opponents. Zeinobia reports from the scene, and found young people with little clear motivation confronting police. One April 6 Movement activist has been critically injured and may not recover.

This year's violence seems much less focused than last year's; its goals less clear and its motivations more muddied.  Perhaps a bit like those of the Revolution itself.

Groping Towards a Ceasefire?

Most of the buzz today has been centered on a supposedly imminent ceasefire/truce/"cooling-off-period" in Gaza, but now those hopes seem to have faded; the arrival of Hillary Clinton in the region and the efforts for some sort of ceasefire may postpone or prevent an Israeli ground assault, but so long as the fighting continues,  dangers increase; an Israeli soldier was killed today, and an Israeli F-16 attacking the Egypt-Gaza border tunnels hit houses on the Egyptian side of the border.

While I hope that the ceasefire or "cooling-off"  or whatever they may choose to call it does take effect, the fact that Egyptian President Morsi announced it would be coming :"within hours" (and then didn't) is a reminder that Morsi is still finding his way in the job and has little background on the international scene; his Brotherhood background gives him credibility with Hamas, but Israel may be more reluctant to give him an apparent victory.

Others have said this better, but while this crisis seems like so may others over the years, the changes in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt, mean that the old deck has been reshuffled and the exact implications of that are not yet clear.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Pope Tawadros' Enthronement and The Man Who Wasn't There

Yesterday, Coptic Pope Tawadros II was enthroned as the 118th successor of Saint Mark. The picture at left is of him being greeted by Egyptian  Prime Minister Hisham Qandil. Don't worry if you didn't immediately recognize the Prime Minister. Many Egyptians have the same problem. What is more important is the man who isn't in the picture: President Muhammad Morsi. My previous post this afternoon was moderately favorable to Morsi. Here's the other side of the coin.

Morsi's decision not to attend the enthronement has not been explained very clearly; but it seems tone deaf that a man who has regularly insisted that Copts and Muslims are all equally Egyptians would not attend the installation of the first new Coptic Pope in 40 years. Among Egyptian bloggers, Zeinobia assumes he's catering to the Salafis; Salama Moussa suggested the Coptic Church should leave one empty seat open in the front row, "to remind all Egyptians that they lack a leader in their President. The gross indecency of his absence can only be confronted by the eloquent silence of emptiness." The Arabist calls it an "absolutely flabbergasting decision."

Readers may recall that when Egyptian troops died in Sinai this summer, Morsi also gave their funeral a pass and sent Qandil, that time blaming "security concerns."

That same link above to Issandr at The Arabist has far nicer things to say about the new Pope himself. He points to the Pope's interview at Daily News Egypt, particularly his response when the Muslim Brotherhood's dominating Freedom and Justice Party visited him:
Two days ago we had a visit from the representatives of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Wadi Al-Natrun, where the monastery is located. They asked me what I would wish for from the FJP. I replied that I request two things from the FJP; freedom and justice, only.
Great answer. I think this Pope could prove interesting.

Can Morsi Broker a Ceasefire?

Hussein Ibish's latest piece at The Daily Beast, "Talk Like an Egyptian," argues that if President Morsi can pull off an Israel-Hamas ceasefire, or get the credit for one at least, all sides might benefit, not least Morsi himself:
The best solution for almost all concerned would probably be a cease-fire brokered by, or credited to, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, which could secure many of the most important aims of the main parties. Both Israel and Hamas have their reasons for wanting to extricate themselves sooner rather than later from the current conflagration. They have both achieved significant results already, but may have overplayed their hands and be facing rapidly diminishing returns ...
Both sides may feel they still have more to accomplish and that the formula for getting out of this mess hasn't yet arisen. But an Egyptian-brokered deal potentially provides something for everybody.
Israeli leaders can claim they restored deterrence, took out key militant leaders, destroyed infrastructure and demonstrated that there is a heavy price for anyone attacking Israel from Gaza. Hamas leaders can claim to have stood up to Israel, shown the Israeli public they can reach Tel Aviv, once again unfurled the banner of armed resistance, and achieved major diplomatic breakthroughs with the recent high level visits to Gaza.
Morsi can achieve the neatest trick of all: he can continue with what are effectively Mubarak-era policies—Egypt serving as a broker of cease-fires and a liaison between Hamas and Israel—while presenting the whole thing as a reassertion of Egypt's regional leadership, and a new foreign policy that stands closer to Hamas (mainly by symbolically dispatching his prime minister to Gaza). So he can create the appearance of popular change without actually changing policies that would aggravate relations with Israel or the United States.
I think this may have to play out a few more days than Ibish seems to, though I also think that the fact that Israel has not launched a ground invasion means that Netanyahu is hesitating, perhaps knowing full well that IDF casualties could hurt him in the elections. (He could prove me wrong at any minute, of course). And I am unimpressed by Morsi's personal diplomatic skills, which have so far been largely undetectable, but he has good ties with Hamas, and the Egyptian professional diplomatic corps and intelligence services know well how to deal with Israelis. Of course if Morsi gets the credit Ibish is dead on about the likely result: business as usual with Israel and the US while he is able to present himself to his Muslim Brotherhood colleagues as the man who saved Hamas and Gaza.

It could be a way out of the situation for both sides, but I fear we aren't quite there yet.

"Roads of Arabia" at the Smithsonian

4th Millennium BCE Stele, Ha'il, 

In the midst of the war in Gaza, and what may be a week of fear and bloodshed for Israelis and Palestinians alike, I thought I should start the week with something more positive: what sounds like a truly remarkable new exhibit at the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries of Asian Art: Roads of Arabia: Archaeological History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The exhibit, which opened at the Sackler on Saturday and will run through February 24 for those of you within reach of Washington; later it will be visiting Houston, Chicago and San Francisco.  I admit I haven't yet seen it myself and may write more once I have (perhaps over Thanksgiving weekend), but am basing this on the exhibition site linked above, and these reviews by the BBC and The Washington Post.

[BBC link was broken but should work now.]
The exhibition stems from the fact that after years of neglecting or downplaying its pre-Islamic history and archaeology, the Kingdom is now encouraging not only its study but even exploring the possibilities of pre-Islamic sites like Mada'in Salih as potential tourist sites. As I said I haven't seen it yet and will reserve any personal observations until I have,  but everything I've linked to here makes it sound very worth a look.
Ancient Trade Routes in Arabia

Friday, November 16, 2012

Advertisement from a Lost World

It looks like we're in for a grim weekend as the situation in Gaza spirals towards what may be a ground operation, so the sort of lightweight post I originally planned seems ill-timed. I thought I would leave you with a reminder of another era, of a lost world: 12 hours by bus from Cairo to Jerusalem via al-Arish, Rafah, Gaza and Jaffa. Not sure of the date, but pre-1948:

"Pillar of Defense" or "Pillar of Cloud"?

Others have already commented on the fact that though Israel's operation in Gaza is called, in Hebrew, Operation Amud Anan (עמוד ענן) or "Pillar of Cloud" — a clearly Biblical reference that should be familiar to Jews, Christians, and anyone who has seen Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments — but, for whatever reason, the IDF is referring to in English as "Pillar of Defense."

Some comments have seemingly suggested that "Pillar of Cloud" might not evoke the same resonance in English that it does in Hebrew, and that "Pillar of Defense" makes the idea clearer. But does it? A pillar is not usually a defensive structure, while the imagery from the Biblical account is a fairly familiar part of the Western tradition. Or at least it is to me.

On the other hand, perhaps they were worried that some will misunderstand the Biblical allusion, as this article at Gawker seems to,  as a symbol of "an all-powerful, vengeful God seeking to demonstrate the primacy of his chosen people," not, presumably the PR image the IDF was aiming for. But that is not really the implication of "Pillar of Cloud" in Exodus, for as this article on the Tablet Jewish site notes that the midrash on the Biblical text describes the pillar as defending Israel against the pursuing Egyptians (and not, as smiting them):
The midrash on this section—which is cited by Rashi, the most famous Jewish biblical commentator, and taught in many Hebrew schools—elaborates:

They [the Egyptians] shot arrows and catapult stones at them, but the angel and cloud caught them.
In fact, as this article notes, the Talmud adds a layer of interpretation that may even contradict the image the IDF was presumably looking for:
According to the Talmud, the Pillar of Cloud was a special gift conferred upon the Israelites because of the merit of Aaron, Moses’s brother. And Aaron’s quintessential quality—the quality that would have earned him this gift—was that he was, well, a peacenik. The Talmud teaches in Pirkei Avot that Rabbi Hillel said, “Be among the disciples of Aaron—a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace; a lover of all people, bringing them closer to the Torah.” Another rabbinic text, Avot d’Rabbi Natan, makes clear that this attitude should be extended not just to Jews, but to all nations: “The phrase teaches us that a person should be a pursuer of peace among people, between each and every one.”

I can’t speak for the entire Israeli public, but when I think “Pillar of Cloud,” this—Aaron’s legacy of peacemaking, and the rabbinic injunction to follow in his footsteps—is what springs to mind. So perhaps next time the IDF wants to exploit Israelis’ semantic field to sell them on a new military operation, they should do their homework first—or hire some good yeshiva students to do it for them.
Whichever meaning was intended by the IDF in choosing the name, I still think that "Pillar of Defense" is an awkward choice in English: at worst, it may suggest they're trying to conceal the Biblical reference, as some have inferred.

Personally, I long for the days when military "codenames" really were code, not public relations tools (World War II operations like Torch and Overlord tell you nothing at all, which used to the intention of a codename.)

Hamas Escalates

What began as a traditional tit-for-tat exchange of retaliations has continued to metastasize into something far more dangerous. Israel's targeted killing of a Hamas military leader was one escalation; but Hamas itself raised the ante with yesterday's rocket attack against Tel Aviv, and today's firing of a rocket at Jerusalem marks a provocative move that not only escalates but will infuriate Israelis, and may alarm some Arabs as well since Hamas' rockets are too inaccurate to choose one Jerusalem neighborhood over another.

At this stage an Israeli ground operation against Gaza is starting to seem more and more likely. And that will speed up the escalator even more.,

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Very Dangerous Moment

The latest fighting in Gaza is both depressingly familiar and also dangerously escalatory at a time of rising regional tensions.  The tit-for-tat retaliation and escalation is hardly new: a rocket firing into Israel, an Israeli response, and on up the escalator. Israel's decision to directly target the senior Hamas military commander and other high officials raises the stakes, but Hamas can hardly be unaware that Israel is determined to respond to rocket attacks against its people. (Though whether the attacks that started all this were launched by Hamas or someone else is still disputed.) But when Israel strikees at targets in densely populated Gaza, civilian casualties are inevitable, and as on other occasions photos of dead or injured Palestinian children  provokes anger throughout the Arab world. And  in the present circumstances in the Middle East, that may be playing with fire.

With recent exchanges of fire on the Golan (though whether the firing from the Syrian side was from regime forces or rebels is unclear), the  high tensions between Israel and Iran, and the dangerously anarchic situation in Sinai, any escalation on  the Gaza front has the risk of spreading. Given President Morsi's background, he is under a lot of domestic pressure to stand up to Israel or at least sharply condemn events, and is said to be recalling Egypt's Ambassador from Tel Aviv. But Egypt and Israel are no longer the only actors in Sinai, so neither is completely in control of events there. The war next door in Gaza could easily engage the radical Jihadi elements in Sinai.

These are dangerous times, and the fact that Israel is in the midst of an election campaign may make it more difficult to de-escalate once decisions are made. Israel's right to defend itself is self-evident, but with so many smoldering powder kegs around, one can only hope it is very careful about what it aims at..

A Happy 1434

I'm several hours late in wishing my Muslim readers a happy new year; today is the first of Muharram 1434, ra's al-sana al-hijiryya, in the Islamic Hijri calendar.

Ruhi Ramazani's New Book/Retrospective

Prof. R.K. Ramazani
I posted last month about how Professor Ruhi Ramazani was marking 60 years of teaching at the University of Virginia, and I linked to a reminiscence by him.

Now I want to note this release from UVA: " Book to Serve as Capstone to Long and Illustrious Career of Iran Foreign Policy Expert."  His new book, Iranian Foreign Policy:Independence without Freedom, due out next year, will be a retrospective collection of his articles and book chapters dealing with, as the release puts it, "a case that has been central to much of his scholarship on Iran: that truly understanding the country’s foreign policy requires a nuanced awareness of its culture, people, and long history of occupation and domination by foreign powers."

Read the whole release: it quotes many of his colleagues and former students. I never had the privilege of studying under Ruhi, but I have worked with him and edited his work, and he remains a great scholar, a personal friend, and very much a gentleman of the old school.

My one quibble: why "capstone" of his career? Yes, in his 80s he doesn't get around as well as he once did, and he emailed me his regrets that he couldn't make it to the MEI Annual Conference (as he did like clockwork for decades).  Let's say it's a retrospective on a 60 year career — until he has enough new articles for the next retrospective.

Full disclosure: I know this forthcoming book will contain a number of articles that originally appeared in The Middle East Journal, because I saw the list of requests for copyright release. Ruhi has been a Journal regular from the 1950s. I hope there will be more opportunities to publish him.

Now, the Petraeus Story Has a Lebanese Angle

Having been tied up attending MEI's Annual Conference I'm a little behind on blogging about the critical issues of the day. Up until now I had nothing to say about the whole General Petraeus sex scandal since it seemed a tabloid story, and this blog only deals in sleazy sex scandals when they have a clear Middle Eastern angle; besides I felt that The Onion's reporting covered the essentials: "Nation Horrified To Learn About War In Afghanistan While Reading Up On Petraeus Sex Scandal, which notes the nation's scandal readers were shocked to discover we've been at war in Afghanistan for 11 years. Other than that it just seemed like a tragic story of a good man whose flaws brought him low.

Of course the conspiracy theorists started early, as seems only natural when you have the head of the CIA, the NATO Commander in Afghanistan, a couple of femmes fatales, some curious behavior by an FBI agent, etc. But as a conspiracy theory it was missing something, a je ne sais quois that would tie it all together.

Then over the last couple of days we've learned that in fact "Tampa socialite" (is "socialite" a recognized job description? How do I apply?) Jill Kelley was born Gilberte Khawam, of a Lebanese Maronite family from the town of Jounieh.

The missing puzzle piece! Every conspiracy theory should have a Lebanese connection! Juan Cole considers the subject fairly seriously, so I guess I don't need to. Since  in 2010 when the Miss USA candidate in the Miss Universe contest was a Michigan Arab-American of part Shi‘ite background there were crazed allegations she was some kind of Hizbullah mole, infiltrating our beauty contests (despite her posing in bikinis rather than niqab), the nutcases should be able to spin this into something. The Maronite angle doesn't fit real well (unless they're Aounists, which could give us a Hizbullah connection ...)

I am, of course, just kidding. I have no idea from the muddled leaks so far if Mrs. Kelley or General Allen have done anything even remotely improper, and my target here is not those possibly innocent individuals caught in this net, but the conspiratorial mindset.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Looking Back on MEI's Annual Conference

As I'd noted, last night and today marked MEI's 66th Annual Conference. It was, I think, a very successful one and I'd urge those of you who weren't there (or those who were but couldn't get enough) to keep an eye on the MEI website where transcripts should be available soon and also video.

A few blog readers introduced themselves to me today, and I thank you for reading me.

MEI Annual Conference Today

I'll be at MEI's Annual Conference all day today, so any posting won't occur till evening or, likelier, tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Aramaic Revivals in Israel and the West Bank?

 We talked quite a bit in 2011 about survivals of spoken Aramaic, both in its Eastern and Western forms. And of course this once widespread language still has a liturgical role in many Eastern Christian churches, Judaism, Samaritanism, and Mandaeanism.

Here's an article on attempts to revive or at least teach Aramaic in two towns where it has only survived liturgically: the town of Jish in Galilee, an Israeli Arab town with a Maronite majority; and Bait Jala near Bethlehem in the West Bank, where the Syrian Orthodox church has been promoting the language:
The reintroduction of Aramaic into the elementary school curriculum, especially in the form of the  Galilee Aramaic dialect taught in Jish, is thought to enhance children’s appreciation of their Christian heritage. The hope is that the pupils will eventually use their forefathers’ language to communicate among themselves. There are signs that this might happen, as students are already using Aramaic  it to pass secret notes to each other in class. But this trick may not work for much longer, as adults too have started to learn Aramaic. In Jish, the first three-month course for adults was offered in 2006; since then a small group of adult students have continued studying on their own. They have also began connecting with other Aramaic communities in Sweden and the Netherlands.
Sweden turns out to be an important source of both learning materials and inspiration for the revival of Aramaic inIsrael and the West Bank. Swedish officials estimate that anywhere from 30,000 to 80,000 Aramaic speakers who descended from transplanted Middle Easterners reside in their country. The Swedish Aramaic community has its own soccer team, “Syrianska FC”, from the town of Sodertalje. But more importantly, the community publishes a newspaper called “Bahro Suryoyo”, as well as pamphlets and children’s books translated into Aramaic, including The Little Prince. But what really helps the students learn the language is Soryoyosat, a satellite television station maintained by the Swedish Aramaic community. For some residents of Jish and Beit Jala, watching Aramaic programming from Sweden provided the first opportunity in decades to hear the language spoken outside church. Thus, modern technology helps the revival of Aramaic by making it more accessible and by increasing the learners’ motivation.
An interesting twist for those who share my interest in minority language survivals.

Jihadi On Egyptian TV: Destroy the Pyramids and Sphinx

I try. I really do. When the media was reporting that the Egyptian Parliament was considering a law that might permit necrophilia, I debunked, I think, fairly effectively, I think. And when there were reports the Salafis were threatening to encase the pyramids in wax, I tried to talk people down by noting that President Morsi went to Karnak to reassure tourists. But I overlooked the fact that, no matter how I may try to persuade people that Islamists are not all, necessarily, out to destroy civilization,  there will always be, somewhere, someplace, sometime, some complete unmitigated lunatic who will go on TV and say something so utterly outrageous that all I can do is report it.

Murgan Salim al-Gohary is a complete raving absolute batshit-crazy f*cking lunatic self-described Jihadi and ally of the Taliban, who, as the Egypt Independent describes it:
Gohary, 50, is well-known in Egypt for his advocacy of violence. He was sentenced twice under former President Hosni Mubarak, one of the two sentences being life imprisonment. He subsequently fled Egypt to Afghanistan, where he was badly injured in the American invasion. In 2007, he traveled from Pakistan to Syria, which then handed him over to Egypt. After Mubarak's fall in early 2011, he was released from prison by a judicial ruling.
“All Muslims are charged with applying the teachings of Islam to remove such idols, as we did in Afghanistan when we destroyed the Buddha statues,” he said.
Charming chap. He lists the Buddhas of Bamiyan on his resume. Can't UNESCO drop a SEAL team in and spirit him off to the International Criminal Court? (If UNESCO doesn't have special operations forces, can we propose some?) He did this on an Egyptian talk show and drew a comment from a former Founder of Tunisia's al-Nahda movement, Abdelfattah Mourou,  who was rather taken aback;
The vice president of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, Sheikh Abdel Fattah Moro, called the station and told Gohary that famous military commander Amr ibn al-Aas [conaqueror of Egypt, companion of the Prophet Muhammad]  did not destroy statues when he conquered Egypt.  “So who are you to do it?” he wondered. “The Prophet destroyed the idols because people worshiped them, but the Sphinx and the Pyramids are not worshiped.”
Gohary responded that the conquerors lacked modern explosives technology.

Now, a lot of secular Egyptians actually love this sort of thing because it embarrasses the Muslim Brotherhood (and personally I don't mind them being embarrassed by their supposed fellow-Islamists), but Morsi has been careful to protect and defend the entire tourist industry, as his visit to Karnak showed. But he has not been quick to denounce the crazies spewing this kind of anti-cultural and anti-historical venom.

And while most Egyptians and most informed outsiders realize this guy is an outlier on the most outlying fringe, and he's not going to damage the pyramids without nuclear weapons, recent events in Timbuktu and at Sufi shrines across North Africa remind us that crazies can destroy heritage even if they don't have the power of the Taliban at Bamiyan,  And the sphinx has already lost its nose. (And maybe a couple of other things?)

As an Editor and Publisher I am as strong a free speech advocate as there can be, but this is not just "shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater". this incitement to destroying a major part of the world's heritage. And what do you do with violent, inciting lunatics? Egypt seems to be following the US approach: "put them on TV talk shows." It may be time to rethink that.

For those of you who know Arabic, here's the original from Egypt's Dream TV2, though posted to YouTube by a Christian group:

Egyptian blogger Zeinobia lampooned the whole thing, and then when readers denounced her for calling attention to it, responded in defense. After all, story had been picked up by CNN, al-Arabiya, and many other international media. Zeinobia wasn't embarrassing Egypt before the world: Gohary had already done that.

Zeinobia did post a couple of cartoons worth reproducing here:

The sphinx has grown a beard and picked up some prayer beads in self defense:
And the sphinx expresses a (not very polite but utterly appropriate) response to the whole idea:

And since that is already a mite in bad taste, let me suggest that Mr. Gohary should perhaps not subscribe to the Facebook site Vuestra Experiencia in Egipto, which sent out this photo of a statue of Osiris today.  (Warning: Definitely Not Safe For Work. The statue is of an erect Osiris, and by that I do not mean it's simply not prone, if you get my meaning. [If you're familiar with the Isis/Osiris legend, I'm referring to the part that was eaten by the fish.] I suspect Mr. Gohary would not approve. Don't click if you are easily offended.)

Monday, November 12, 2012

Holiday Note

Just a note that today is a holiday here in the US and I won't be blogging till tomorrow or perhaps this evening. This week is also MEI's Annual Conference so posts may be appearing at odd times.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Veteran's Day/Remembrance Day

Sunday marks the 94th anniversary of the end of the Great War, the War to End Wars, though it didn't. Here in the US we will mark Veteran's Day on Monday, but the 11th day of the 11th month remains the original date, whether you call it Veteran's Day or Remembrance Day or Armistice Day. All the veterans of that war are gone now. The last Turkish veteran, Yakup Satar, is shown at left; he died at 110 in 2008.

I would refer you to my much lengthier post, with videos, last year at this time for my fuller thoughts on this day. More than any other event in the previous century, the Great War and its aftermath gave birth to the modern Middle Eastern state system with all its problems and unresolved issues.

Patton and Morocco: Friend of the Sultan

I noted that yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the Operation Torch landings in North Africa, and that I'd be talking more about some of the local North African aspects of the campaign.. The US commander in Morocco was none other than George S. Patton. Though his primary dealings were with the Vichy French generals who had been running the country, he also dealt with Sultan (later King) Muhammad V and his family. The photo at left shows him with the Sultan Grand Vizir and one of the Sultan's sons, who is, I think, a young Moulay Hassan, later King Hassan II.

In the 1970 film Patton, there is an early scene in which George C. Scott as Patton is reviewing a parade of the Royal Guard (played, I believe, by the real Moroccan Royal Guard), and is asked by a figure  presumed to be the Sultan, "Tell me, general.  What do you think of Morocco?" Patton replies, " I love it,  excellency. It's a combination of the Bible ... and Hollywood."

I have no idea if Patton said that to the Sultan, but he definitely thought it, and once referred to Casablanca as "a city which combines Hollywood and the Bible."  (Blumenson, The Patton Papers, II, 120.)

Patton's attitudes toward the local Arab population were not particularly enlightened, and I may write about that later, but he seems to have enjoyed his interaction with royalty. He noted that when the Sultan gave him the Grand Cross of Morocco, it was an award "he had never seen a Frenchman wear"; when he had a display of weapons for the Sultan and invited him to ride in his armored car, he noted that "he insisted that I sit beside him ... the first time a Sultan has ever let any foreigner sit beside him." (Patton Papers II, 151). The Sultan had never let the French sit next to him? How would Patton know this? But clearly he felt flattered. He noted of the same occasion that the Prince (the future Hassan II) "told me that when he is Sultan, I am to be his Grand Vizier and we will go everywhere in  a tank." (Patton Papers II, 151,) 

Now that  would have been worth seeing.

As I say, Patton's other views of Morocco were less amusing and will be the subject of a later post.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Counting Down to MEI's Annual Conference

A reminder that the Middle East Institute's Annual Conference is Tuesday and Wednesday.  The conference itself, on Wednesday, is free, but please register here; the banquet on Tuesday and luncheon on Wednesday do require tickets, also available through the link. Updated: Registration is now closed.

The Torch Landings at 70

US forces landing at Algiers
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the US-British landings in North Africa in Operation Torch,  the first major US combat in the European theater in World War II. With landings at Casablanca and other sites in Morocco, and at Oran and Algiers in Algeria, the goal was to liberate French North Africa (then controlled by Vichy), put Allied Forces in the rear of Rommel, still fighting Montgomery in the Alamein Campaign in Egypt, and provided a stepping-stone for the eventual invasion of southern Europe.
The Allies gave little thought to the local peoples of North Africa, though General George S. Patton in Morocco did enjoy good relations with Sultan Muhammad V.  As we proceed through the 70th anniversary of the North Africa campaign I hope to post occasionally on this blog, not just about the policies or tactics of the Allied operations, but their impact on Algerians, Moroccans, and eventually Tunisians.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Satchmo at the Pyramids

Gabriel blows his horn: Louis Armstrong plays for his wife at the Sphinx and Pyramids, January 28, 1961 . . . It's a wonderful world . . .

What's Bibi Thinking?

 An Israeli photo comment. Perhaps more on this theme later. Though I fear it isn't this simple.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

For US Election Day: Egypt's 1923-24 Elections and Saad Zaghloul

Here in the US, as a few of you may have heard rumored, we're having a Presidential election today. Although  in the past few years the "purple finger" evidence of voting has led to much celebration in (and among outsiders, about) the Middle East as Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt and other countries have begun to hold rather more competitive elections than the old 99.9% for the ruling party kind, it's also worth remembering that these were not the first competitive elections in the region.

Before I go on, a quick aside to my US citizen readers at home or abroad, and to new voters in the Middle East: I'm old enough to remember the line in JFK's inaugural address about this being "not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom." And I'm still young enough to retain enough idealism to believe it. After two years of rhetoric, excessive campaigning, constant advertising and annoying phone calls, that's now all just noisy wind. The power of democracy isn't in the loudspeakers and the blaring commercials, but in the quiet when hundreds of millions of individuals go behind a curtain and in the quiet privacy of their own thoughts make a choice. My daughter said last night she was so sick of the commercials she wished she could punch the candidates. I told her I understood her frustration but that those of us over 18 get to punch something more long-lasting in its effects. A ballot or a voting machine.

(We now return you to our regular blogpost. I'm Michael Dunn and I approved this message.)

During what has been called "the liberal age" in the Arab world, several countries had mixed political systems with elected parliaments, competitive political parties, and sometimes a moderately free press., Egypt beginning in 1923, Iraq beginning in 1925, Syria during and after the French mandate, all had elected parliaments of a sort. In Egypt and Iraq these had to balance against a strong throne (and the British), and women couldn't vote in any of these systems — but they couldn't yet vote in France, either, and had just won the vote in the US and UK. Flawed and imperfect as they may have been, elections were held and political parties existed during the liberal interlude, which largely coincided with the inter-World Wars period and the immediate post-WWII years.

So today I thought I'd note Egypt first Parliamentary elections after its nominal independence in 1922 and its adoption of the liberal constitution of 1923. As this Al-Ahram English article on the 1923 vote— an article you should read in full — notes,
On Saturday 12 January 1924, the representatives of the Egyptian electorate made their way to the polling stations in order to elect Egypt's first truly popularly elected parliament since the introduction of the parliamentary system 58 years previously.
The description, "truly popularly elected parliament," is appropriate. The Constitution of 1923 was the basis of the electoral law. Article 1 of that law stipulated, "Every Egyptian male has the right to elect the members of the Chamber of Deputies upon fully attaining the age of 21 as reckoned in Christian calendar years and to elect the members of the Senate upon fully attaining the age of 25 as reckoned in Christian calendar years."
Under British rule there had been a financial qualification for the franchise. As previously noted, women could not vote, and the uneducated workers and fellahin were likely to be influenced by their employers or the big landholders, but elections did occur and political parties did emerge.

Though the franchise was general among males, the election was somewhat indirect (just as we Americans are not voting directly for the President today, but for electors by state: it's the electoral vote that counts).  The general population voted  on September 27, 1923 for 38,000 eledssctors who in turn voted in January for the representatives.

Saad Zahgloul Pasha
The impetus for Egyptian independence in 1922 had been the Revolution of 1919 (or, in British terminology, the uprising of that year) and the exile of Saad Zahgloul; (and yes, that makes two Saad Zaghloul posts in less than a week). With independence Zaghloul had returned from exile as the hero of the nation; his "Wafd" (originally his intended Egyptian "delegation" to the Paris Peace Conference) now the most powerful nationalist party in the country. In the elections, unsurprisingly, the Wafd won 188 out of 215 seats, and Zaghloul became Prime Minister.

I can't find any pictures of people voting in the 1923-24 elections, but something I have in fact posted here before, two years ago, there are a couple of rare surviving clips showing Zaghloul's return from exile and the crowds greeting him. There are very few early videos of the Middle East that aren't either of World War I or travelogues of the pyramids or religious sites; these early versions of newsreels are therefore of interest. Though not of the elections proper they give some idea of the enthusiasm for Zahgloul:

Monday, November 5, 2012

Now That We Know Pope Tawadros II, Who Was Pope Tawadros I?

Newly-elected Coptic Pope Tawadros will be known as Tawadros II, and he is 118th in the line of Coptic Popes. But who, I found myself wondering, was Pope Tawadros I? I may be the only non-Copt who wonders about such things (being a historian of Egypt in my origins), but in case there are others of you out there who wondered the same thing (or will now that I've planted it in your mind), I decided to answer it. He was the 45th Patriarch, and his 12 year reign (731-743) was in the late Umayyad period during the Caliphate of Hisham.

From Severus of Ushmunayn (Sawirus ibn al-Muqaffa), History of the Patriarchs, the official collection of Patriarchal biographies (many close to contemporary in origin), Evetts translation:

And an assembly of the holy bishops met together and consecrated the holy Father Theodore patriarch by the command of the Lord Christ. And the affairs of the patriarchate and of the orthodox church grew and prospered during all his days, until they returned to their former state, and became still more flourishing, so that it seemed as if the church had never been plundered. And Theodore was a good man, tranquil, full of charity towards all men, beautiful in countenance like an angel of God; and in his days nothing evil was done.
But Ubaid Allah, the ruler in Egypt, brought punishments and trials and losses upon the people of Egypt, and added an eighth of a dinar to every dinar of the taxes; and through his oppression of the people the dinar grew rare and rose in value. Yet when he continued long in this course, God would not suffer him, but raised up against him some of the chief among the Muslims, who went to Hishâm the prince, and made known to him the evil which he did, and the troubles that he had caused in Egypt. Therefore Hishâm was filled with wrath against Ubaid Allah, and wrote at once to remove him, and despatched an officer with many attendants to Egypt in great anger. And he commanded that he should be banished with his younger son, Isma'îl, to the land of the Berbers in the province of Africa, |and that Isma'îl should be exiled thence to the land of the Setting Sun, and punished because he did not do what was commanded him. So this was speedily done to him. Hishâm made Ubaid Allah's elder son, Al-Kasim, governor in Egypt, and set him over her affairs instead of his father, who was banished to the Berbers. When he had remained there a short time he ruled over the Berbers in Africa, where his son Isma'îl was, until he was banished whither the prince commanded. For Ubaid Allah wrote to Hishâm, seeking to conciliate him, and expressing repentance of what he had done, and begging him to make him governor of that country; and so he was made governor over the Berbers in Africa. Yet his deeds were again evil, for he seized the daughters of rich men and the daughters of the chiefs and officers, and sent them to Hishâm the prince as maidservants, writing to him that they were slave-girls whom he had bought for him as maidservants. Likewise the sheep, when they- were near parturition, he ripped them open, and took out the lambs just covered with wool, and took their skins and made pelisses of them, and sent them to Hishâm, saying that he had bought them for him; so that he destroyed large numbers of sheep from that country. Therefore the Berbers conspired against him, forming a plot to kill his son Isma'îl and the people of his house; and they seized Isma'îl and his wives and concubines and all that belonged to him, and killed them all in his presence, while he looked on. And they ripped the women open, and took the infants from them, and threw them down before him.
Then they brought Isma'îl to Africa, taking him bound to his father, and killed him in his presence while he looked on, after ripping him open and striking his father on the head and face with his dead body; and afterwards they drove his father away from their country, following and insulting him, while he was sad and weeping. And our father Theodore lived to see all these things.
Then the Lord visited him, and he departed to him in a good old age and in the grace of the Lord Christ. And the Church was growing, without adversaries or internal divisions, all his days. He remained upon the apostolic throne eleven years and a half, and went to his rest on the seventh day of Amshir.
The governor Ubaid Allah mentioned here is the well-known (for those of us who do medieval Egypt anyway) Ubayd Allah ibn al-Habhab.

And from the Coptic Encylcopedia: 
THEODORUS, forty-fifth patriarch of the See of Saint Mark (731-743). Theodorus (Tawadrus) was a monk at Dayr Tamnurah on the fringe of Mareotis, west of Alexandria. The sources are silent about his early secular life as well as on the date and place of his birth and his activities before he took the monastic vow. However, the HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS is explicit about his saintly character and his humility, as well as his love of serving others throughout his life. He aimed always at the execution of Christ's words to his disciples: "Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave" (Mt. 20:26-27). He literally carried out the Lord's words by serving his fellow monks, and as patriarch he continued to serve the whole community in the same way.
His fame spread through Alexandria, and its notables and archons as well as its clergy nominated him for the patriarchal dignity. It is said in the History of the Patriarchs that his spiritual father, ALEXANDER II, had prophesied that Theodorus would succeed to the throne of Saint Mark.

His reign was marked on the whole by an atmosphere of peace and serenity, though for a short time at the beginning this was not so. ‘Ubayd Allah, the governor of Egypt at Theodorus' accession, proved to be a tough extortionist who doubled the capitation tax (JIZYAH) from one to two dinars and even imposed heavier taxation on his fellow Muslims. It is said that the Muslims, not the Copts, were the first to protest against his imposts to the lenient caliph Hisham, who listened to their complaint and removed ‘Ubayd Allah from Egypt to the Maghreb, where he met his end in Morocco. With ‘Ubayd Allah's disappearance from the country, peaceful coexistence prevailed and the people, both Muslims and Copts, lived together harmoniously with no fear of excessive and illegal taxation.

The Covenant of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab was observed by the new governors in relation to the Coptic people. The Coptic community kept growing under Theodorus owing to the return of many Chalcedonians to the mother church.
Now we know.