A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Mudros Armistice Day

I've been busy, so this is a day late: October 30 marked the 95th anniversary of the Mudros Armistice, the surrender of the Ottoman Empire to the Allies in World War I, a little under two weeks before the much more famous Western Front armistice on November 11. For more, read this 2011 post.

Iranian Newspaper Ban Shows Limits of Rouhani's Liberalization

The Iranian reformist newspaper Bahar has been closed following publication of an article suggesting that Imam ‘Ali was more important as a spiritual leader than as s political one. The article interprets the offense as being seen as a subtle criticism of the governing principle of velayat-e faqih and thus veiled attack on the authority of the religious leader, Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamenei,

The article quotes a "scholar of religion" as follows:

A scholar of religion, who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, asserted, “Look, this article has crossed two red lines. One is that its author is a well-known member of the Freedom Movement of Iran [Nehzat-e Azadi-e Iran],” the opposition party that has been banned from political activities for more than two decades. During the past three decades, especially after the unrest following the 2009 presidential elections, a number of party members, including its leader and other prominent figures, were arrested. “The second problem,” the scholar continued, “is the content of the article.”
“The establishment in Iran is stressing the point that the velayat-e faqih [guardianship of the jurist] is in fact the continuation of the rulership [velayat] of Imam Ali. Knowing this fact, Gharavi still emphasized the point that Imam Ali was more of a spiritual leader than a political one. In other words, he has questioned the position of Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei as the political leader.” In one part of the article Gharavi wrote, “Imam Ali repeatedly mentions in Nahj al-Balagha [a book of quotations and sermons attributed to him] that political rule can only be achieved by people voting and paying allegiance.”
True, but depending on what the article said in detail (the brief quote in the article isn't very illuminating). one could even argue that the article attacked not only velayat-e faqih, but also the fundamental underpinning claim of Shi‘ism, that ‘Ali and his descendants were the rightful successors of the Prophet as the head of the Muslim community, a role which included both religious and political authority. In addition, ‘Ali, in addition to being the first Imam of Shi‘ism, is also considered the fourth and last of the Rightly Guided Caliphs who ruled the entire Muslim community AD 656-661; it's not clear if the article went so far.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Attempted Attacks in Monastir and Sousse

A man has blown himself up outside the Riadh Palms Hotel in the Tunisian town of Sousse, and another man is being sought in that town, while a plot has been foiled in the town  of Monastir to blow up the tomb of former President Habib Bourguiba. Only the suicide bomber died in the bombing.There are reports of other incidents and foiled plots for which details have not been made public.

The dead man and other suspects are being described as "Salafi Takfiris."

Tunisia has been struggling with low-grade but persistent violence between Salafis and secularists, including several attacks on security forces. The bombing in Sousse was presumably aimed at the tourist industry, though no damage was done and the explosion was outside the hotel. Bourguiba, of course, was militantly secularist and is presumably seen as a symbol. Other accounts here and here.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

48 Years Ago Today, Mehdi Ben Barka Disappeared . . .

Mehdi Ben Barka
On October 29, 1965, the exiled Moroccan leftist opposition figure Mehdi Ben Barka headed to the famous Brasserie Lipp on Paris' Boulevard St. Germain for a supposed meeting he expected to be about making a film for an upcoming conference he was organizing in Havana on Third World liberation movements. Unidentified men grabbed him, shoved him into a car, and drove away. He has not been seen since.

In theory, the French consider the case still open (though no one expects a now 93-year-old Ben Barka to turn up suddenly); it's clear that Moroccan agents were involved, but there are a lingering questions about the role of French intelligence, since he was snatched in a very public place in Paris. (And, of course, some versions bring both the CIA and Mossad into the plot. Though the Middle East loves a good conspiracy theory, it's also true that the French, American and Israeli services all had close links with the Moroccan in those days.)

In 2012 I wrote a bit about the case, after a French judge tried to have the British arrest the head of the Moroccan Olympic committee at the London Olympics.
Plaque at Brasserie Lipp
Two French officers were jailed in 1967, but the French court blamed the plot on then-Moroccan Interior Minister Mohammed Oufkir, who was killed in 1972 during an attempt to overthrow the King; various alleged accounts of what happened agree Ben Barka was either killed or died under interrogation, but the accounts don't match (the body was dissolved in acid, or encased in concrete, depending on the version). Wikipedia offers a summary of various accounts and theories.

In two years, it will have been half a century. But this is not the sort of operation likely to be declassified even at this remove.

Marmaray Rail Tunnel Under Bosphorus Opens on 90th Turkish Republic Day

Gül and Erdoğan take a Ride
Today is Republic Day in Turkey, marking the 90th Anniversary  of the Proclamation of the Turkish Republic on October 29, 1923, and Prime Minister Erdoğan marked it with the opening of another of his ambitious public works projects, the first-ever rail tunnel linking Europe and Asia under the Bosphorus. The Marmaray (for Marmara Rail) will initially link commuter rail traffic on the two sides but will eventually carry long-distance passenger and freight rail as well. Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül were accompanied by the Japanese and Romanian Prime Ministers (Japanese firms built the tunnel),

The idea of a rail tunnel under the sea linking the continents was first proposed by Sultan Abdul Hamid II in 1891 but never built.

Bouteflika and the Fourth Term: Does He Really Mean It?

The National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria has endorsed Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a fourth Presidential term in the elections next April  which is being reported as Bouteflika's deciding to run for the term, though he has not directly said so himself. While it's at least possible that this is a feint to allow him to complete his current round of power reshuffles aimed at breaking the entrenched power of the military and security services (known as "le pouvoir" in Algeria), he may well believe he can do it, despite his stroke earlier this year.

Regular readers (or if you search the Bouteflika tag) will recall that since Bouteflika's return from his French convalescence after the stroke, there has been much debate about a fourth term, but since September he as been actively reshuffling the Cabinet and the powerful DRS security service. Recently he proposed constitutional changes to entrench this. It was unclear if all this was aimed at securing a third term or clearing the obstacles for a chosen successor.

There is plenty of precedent for Arab leaders clinging to power long after age and failing health have weakened their abilities, but last April, a year before the elections, that the time had passed for his generation, the generation of the War of Independence. Has he changed his mind?

The elections are several months away and Bouteflika's rivals in the security services have been outflanked but not destroyed. I suspect this is not the end of the story. But the FLN move may precipitate new developments.

Monday, October 28, 2013

40 Years Since Kilometer 101

Sunday marked the 40th anniversary of the 1973 talks between Israel and Egypt at Kilometer 101. (Actually, since the first meeting took place after midnight, we can equally say that today is the anniversary.) The first direct talks between Israel and Egypt after years of "proximity" negotiations, they were aimed at negotiating the relief of the Egyptian Third Field Army, which had been cut off by Israel's advance across the Suez Canal shortly before the ceasefire in the October 1973 war. I have dealt with the talks in more detail here, but the direct talks, though between military commanders about battlefield disengagement, marked the beginning of the peace process that would lead directly to the Kissinger shuttle diplomacy and, eventually, to Sadat's 1977 trip to Jerusalem and the subsequent Arab-Israeli peace treaty.

Is NatGeo in Trouble Over Hawass Deal?

More than two years after he left office in the wake of the fall of Mubarak, the once inescapable celebrity archaeologist Zahi Hawass (and his hat) seem to be the gift that keeps on giving. Now, at least according to this story, the National Geographic Society is being investigated for possible bribery in its controversial multi-year deal with Hawass as a consultant while he was still an official of the Egyptian state.

Hawass has already dodged several bullets of this sort in Egypt, either being acquitted or having the charges dropped. You may recall that when we last heard from him in this space, the always self-effacing Hawass was comparing himself to the God Osiris and indicating he was planning to rise again.

The article (whose headline inevitably calls him "Egypt's Indiana Jones,") notes what not all my overseas readers may know, that the National Geographic Society is a venerable and highly respected institution once known for exploration and scientific discovery.

Egypt to Drop Limits on Building of Churches?

The 50-member committee drafting Egypt's new constitution has reportedly dropped all barriers to the building of new churches in Egypt. If this eventually makes it through, a big if, it would mark a major development and a breakthrough long sought by the Copts. Every new church built in Egypt previously had to be approved by the President personally, and while this was liberalized a bit in the later Mubarak years, it has been a major cause for complaint.

The same article, though, notes that action was deferred on a clause that would absolutely guarantee freedom of worship. Al-Azhar is apparently holding it up, insisting that the freedom be limited to the three "heavenly" (Abrahamic) religions. That restriction, previously in place, has frequently been used against Egypt's small Baha'i community.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Over the Top Sisi

 A colleague asked me today, "Is this satire?" Oh God, I would love to think so, but this piece on the Ahram Online site by Lubna Abdel Aziz, "Catch the Al-Sisi Mania," sounds only slightly more over the top than the rest of the state media these days. If it's satire, I'm surprised it's in state media; if it's not, we're getting into North Korea territory here. (And if you can no longer be sure if it's real or satire, it tells you how far it's gone.)
He stands straight and tall, impeccably attired and starched from head to toe. His freshly washed countenance and youthful zeal shield a Herculean strength and nerves of steel. He wears the feathers of a dove but has the piercing eyes of a hawk. During our thousand days of darkness, dozens of potential leaders pranced and boasted, to no avail. The leader of the people should combine a love of country, a deep faith in God and the desire to serve the nation’s will.
Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s name lit up the darkness. He was called upon at a supreme moment in history; a kind of mysterious rendez-vous with destiny. He was a hero like no other! He aroused attention without exhausting it. Nothing that touched the common run of mortals made any impression on him. All in all, he is but a common man, with an almost aristocratic aura of a nobleman. Composed and cool, Al-Sisi is everyman’s man, with a sort of serene majesty on his brow. He is the chosen leader of the people because he is willing to be their servant.
Let the deaf, dumb and blind media and governments of the West say what they will, Al-Sisi submitted to the will of 33 million Egyptians in the street and 50 million in their homes, crying for salvation. The people led — Al-Sisi followed....
It gets worse:
In the full vigour of his prime, he exudes a magic charm, afforded to a select few.  His physical appearance — and appearance counts — is flawless. He wears the emblems of his rank on his shoulders as he does the legends of his ancient land, with gushing pride. But it is the swelling reservoir of love for his Egypt and his God that sealed the deal. We responded to this love a million times over. Therefore, for those who raise an eyebrow at the portraits, flags, pins, pictures, chocolates, cups and other forms of Al-Sisi mania that fill the streets of Egypt, it is only a fraction of the love and appreciation we feel for this strong yet modest, soft-spoken, sincere and compassionate leader. It is Kismet....
Then it goes over the top:
His bronzed, gold skin, as gold as the sun’s rays, hides a keen, analytical fire within. He challenges the world not with bellows and bravura but with a soft, sombre reproach, with an audible timbre of compassion.
There is almost poetry in his leadership, but the ardour of the sun is in his veins. He will lead us to victory and never renounce the struggle, and we will be right there at his side.

“To lead the people, walk behind them”
Lao-Tzu (sixth century Chinese philosopher)
The Tao of Sisi.

There's one comment:
 As "a American" myself, and "a American" editor to boot, why am I dubious about "Fred's" command of English?

That "bronzed, gold skin, as gold as the sun’s rays," could explain why he's giving Tutankhamun's golden mask a ride (on a white horse, of course) in this poster, which may mix more metaphors and symbols than anything I've ever seen:
Except of course that Tut's mask is on a woman's body in a a wedding dress. The text is partially obscured and spelled colloquially, but the meaning seems to be "groom [guessing as the word is incomplete] is the male and the bride is the moon(?) and below: "and this is Egypt, oh Americans (you ghajar). (Not sure about the last letter, it looks more like or a 2 or 3. Ghajar means a rude or linguistically crude and abusive person and originally referred to gypsies.)
The photo does not show the entire poster. Perhaps it would make more sense if it showed it all.

Or not. Other suggestions welcome. And they've built some more pyramids. Or perhaps Sisi plans to.

Syrian MiG-29s Appearing Over the Battlefield?

The MiG-29 is one of Syria's key frontline aircraft. While some were already in Syrian service, it was only at midyear this year that there were reports that, after initially freezing an agreement to deliver additional MiG-29s to Syria, Russia had decided to go ahead with the delivery. Some reports said that Russia was providing 10 of the aircraft, and reports suggested they were to be delivered this fall or early next year.

Now there are reports that the MiG-29 has appeared over the battlefield, presumably from the earlier deliveries. That article shows a photo from an unlinked Facebook site, said to depict a MiG-29 over Damascus:
And a recent video released by the rebels reportedly shows one over Deir al-Zor:

Those do appear to be MiG-29s. Though designed for an air superiority fighter it is also capable of ground attack, though in neither photo is it shown releasing weapons.

So: is Asad now risking his most advanced (though basically 1980s) fighter against the rebels?

After all, Bashar's Daddy was a fighter pilot (standing on wing at AF Academy, 1951-52)

Turkey Liberates Q, W, and X

I've been fighting off a stomach bug yesterday and today so blogging has been light, but there are things in the works that should show up today.

Meanwhile, at the London Review of Books, a cultural note: Under Turkey's new "democratization" package introduced by Prime Minister Erdoğan, it will now be legal to use the letters Q, W, and X, previously banned. The article explains, and revisits the story of Atatürk's alphabet reforms.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Remembering 30 Years Since the Beirut Marine Barracks Bombing

October 23, 1983 — 30 years ago today — the US Marines suffered their worst single day of losses since Iwo Jima, and the French Parachutists too their worst losses since Algeria, when two truck bombings ripped through their respective headquarters in Beirut. It was one of the earliest uses of vehicles for suicide attacks, a weapon that would become all too familiar in subsequent years. At the US Marine Barracks near the airport, 220 Marines, 18 Navy and three Army personnel died, along with one Lebanese. At the headquarters of the French 1st Parachute Chasseur Regiment, another bomb killed 58 paratroopers.The group that would soon emerge as Hizbullah was widely blamed.

It was not America's first baptism of fire, coming four years after the Iranian Revolution and subsequent hostage crisis, but the toll of dead was a shock and there was a rush to assign blame, leading to the Long Commission Report and to the withdrawal of the Marines. (Though the Reagan Administration was interventionist, it knew when to cut its losses and go home.)

I'd have to put America's loss of innocence in the Middle East quite a bit earlier, but it was a shock to the public (and the voters) who thought the Lebanon intervention was essentially a separation of forces peacekeeping mission. (It started that way, but then we took sides.)

None of my friends died there but I knew a lot of people involved with Lebanon at the time and one old friend wrote a lot of the Long Commission Report, so a lot of this is fairly fresh in my mind. Let's hope we learned something.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Today's Sisi Pic

Mahmoud Salem may be right that the Sisi bubble is going to burst, but maybe he just doesn't understand the principle of peace and love through military force:

Mahmoud Salem on the "Sisi Bubble"

Mahmoud Salem ("Sandmonkey") has a column at Daily News Egypt, "On Popularity and Bubbles." He sees the Sisi cult as a classic popularity bubble, likely to be short-lived:
It’s easy to see how it will all play out from now: If the MOI’s performance continues the way it is, and the curfew (which is becoming more unpopular by the day and tenfold on Fridays) and the MB demonstrations last for another month with all the police brutality that they face, people will start losing whatever faith they had. Then they will start accepting those as inevitable side-effects of their rulers, but will then start demanding things: more money, more subsidies, employment for their children. Their frustration will start being directed at the government and Sisi himself, and they will slowly but surely drag him down from his pedestal.
 Read the whole thing.

215 Years Ago Today, Napoleon Shelled Al-Azhar

Yesterday marked the 215th anniversary of the outbreak of the 1798 outbreak of a revolt in Cairo against the French occupation under Napoleon, and today marks the anniversary of an act that would lead to continuing resistance: French artillery shelled the al-Hussein Quarter and specifically targeted Al-Azhar itself.

The Napoleonic expedition famously is known for being the opening lecture of many courses on Modern Egyptian History; certainly it was a watershed, bringing the initial European colonial interest in the country. Napoleon famously sought to portray himself as a quasi-Muslim and distributed leaflets printed in Arabic. His efforts met with limited success, but initially, after defeating a Mamluk Army at the "Battle of the Pyramids' (actually fought at Imbaba) and occupied Cairo, he set up councils of Azhari scholars to help administer Cairo.

From the beginning, not everyone was buying what Napoleon was selling, and by September French efforts at imposing new taxes and other moves were provoking opposition. Meanwhile, the Ottomans, who still nominally controlled Egypt, declared war, and Ottoman religious authorities began to emphasize the French Revolution's notorious hostility to religion in all forms

By October of 1798, the simmering resistance exploded into open rebellion. Although it had support in many elements of Cairene society, it was particularly led by Al-Azhar, especially among lower-ranking clerics and students. The old city of Cairo barricaded its gates; senior French officers were assassinated. Accordingly Napoleon deliberately targeted Al-Azhar itself in his response/French troops broke down the barricades,  surrounded the quarters around Al-Azhar and Sayyidna Hussein, and French artillery mounted on the Citadel and elsewhere opened fire on October 22, specifically targeting the Mosque. The next day, October 23, French troops moved in and occupied the Mosque itself.

The French claimed little real damage was done, though the Arab historian Jabarti says that it was the worst destruction the city had seen. Jabarti was critical of the rebels' resort to violence but shocked by the profanation of Al-Azhar; reportedly the French tied their horses in the prayer hall, urinated against the walls, and otherwise displayed their contempt. In addition to those killed in the shelling and fighting, some sheikhs and other organizers were arrested and executed. After that, Napoleon granted amnesty to other participants (right).

Though Cairo was pacified temporarily the French would encounter growing resistance during the remainder of their occupation. After his campaign in Syria and about a year after the Cairo revolt, Bonaparte suddenly felt that France urgently needed his presence (a feeling not shared by the ruling Directory) and slipped through a British blockade, leaving his Army in Egypt. In 1800 a bloodier revolt broke out.

Even during the worst periods of British rule in Egypt, no one would have dared shell Al-Azhar; but Napoleon had done so.

Girodet-Trioson's 1810 painting Révolte du Caire 21 octobre 1798 is probably not a reliable depiction, but here it is anyway:

Monday, October 21, 2013

Dispatches from the Sidelines of the Culture Wars

It's been a while since we've looked at the lighter side of the culture wars in the Middle East. This in no way is intended to minimize the darker side, so visible in this weekend's drive-by shooting of a Coptic wedding in Imbaba, Egypt, presumably by Islamists, that left four dead, including a young girl. Those grim events are the front lines; these are reports from the less depressing sidelines.
  • Usually, Arab countries carefully screen and censor movies before permitting their release. In Dubai, recently, however, a Sylvester Stallone/Arnold Schwarzenegger movie called Escape Plan was shut down halfway through. (I've never heard of the film, but given the age of these two action heroes, are they escaping from an old folks' home? Are there wheelchair chases?) (Before you complain, I'm a senior citizen myself. I just don't star in action films.) Anyway,  according to  The National, the showing at the Ibn Battuta Mall's Grand Cinema was stopped in mid-film when it was discovered a character in the film curses in Arabic. Somehow that had apparently been missed by the original censors.  The National does not enlighten us as to what was actually said.
The "Halal Sex Shop" website presents its products as being "entirely safe," and in compliance with Islamic norms.
Internet users who enter the site find two different links directing them to separate sections for male and female products.
Other sections of the website are designed to discuss sex in the context of Islam under various headings: "Oral sex according to Islam", "Sex manners in Islam" and "Sexual life in Islam."
The anonymous founders of the website said they believed the online shop would help correct prejudices against Islam which they claimed is perceived as "against sex."

Photo Essay on an Egyptian Leper Colony

"Leper Colony" is not a phrase you hear very often today, but here is an intriguing photo essay about a leper hospital/sanitarium at Abu Zaabal just outside of Cairo. I didn't know this place existed, but the photos capture a self-contained community, though many of the residents are apparently cured of the disease,

Friday, October 18, 2013

Cult of Personality? What Cult of Personality? Continued ...

It's been a while since I posted anything about the General Sisi enthusiasm in Egupt, which previously brought us Sisi as Nasser, Sisi as Sadat, Sisi as Ramses III, (but never, ever, Sisi as Husni Mubarak except at Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations.)
"Long live the great ones of Egypt." I think that's Sadat saluting but obscured on the right. ("Long live?" But two of these guys are dead. I guess they're stuck with Sisi.) [UPDATE: Lameen Souag notes in a comment below that it says
تحيه, not تحيا, and should be "greetings" to... He's right, assuming the poster people could spell.]
But not to worry: General Sisi has no plans to run for President.
But Super-Sisi will rescue damsel Egypt in distress.

But of course "All of Egypt is Sisi," so nothing cultish here. (Though "All of Egypt" in this photo doesn't seem to include anyone in Islamist dress.)
(Is the first line in the photo at left really "ya Rabb"? It sure looks like it. Surely things haven't gone that far, since that's reserved for the Deity, but maybe there's something else above it.,

Do you have your Sisi memorabilia yet?
And of course, inevitably:
Something tells me this will not be my last post on this subject.

50 Years Ago, a Largely Forgotten War: the 1963 Moroccan-Algerian "Sand War"

We've talked quite a bit about the 40th anniversary of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, but this week also marked the 50th anniversary of  a much less well-known conflict, the 1963 border war between Morocco and Algeria, often referred to as the "Sand War."

Algeria, after its long fight against France, had finally won its independence in 1962, the previous year. Moroccan nationalists were calling for a "Greater Morocco" including  irredentist claims to neighboring territories, including the still-Spanish Western Sahara, but also including the Algerian oases of Tindouf and Béchar. Morocco claimed these territories which had been incorporated into Algeria under French rule. After some border skirmishing, Morocco invaded Algeria on October 13-14, 1963.
Though Morocco made initial advances, and had far better equipment than the Algerians, Algeria had a large popular force of independence war veterans skilled in guerrilla warfare, and despite some heavy fighting in the disputed region and around the Moroccan oasis of Figuig, by November the war was stalemated and the then-new Organization of African Unity provided mediation efforts.

The war ended with no territorial changes, but the two countries have been rivals ever since, with Algeria later supporting the POLISARIO Front in the Western Sahara war years later.

A video report from the era:

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Former Algerian PM Ouyahia Coming to Washington?

This and other reports indicate that in the wake of Algeria's recent Cabinet and other reshuffles, the next Algerian Ambassador to will be several-times Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia. He most recently had been PM 2008-2012.

What catches the attention here is that Ouyahia has been planning to run for President in next April's elections, especially if the ailing Abdelaziz Bouteflika does not run for a fourth term. So is his appointment  reward for a career of public service or an exile to get him out of Algiers? Perhaps a bit of both, but in keeping with other recent developments, it increasingly seems likely that Bouteflika plans to run (or at least control the choice of a successor).

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Gives Interview with Israel Radio; Rare Optimsm in Geneva?

I've  been hanging around the Middle East far too long to indulge in unbridled optimism, or even bridled optimism, but the Rouhani phenomenon continues to surprise: Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi gave an interview with Israel Radio:
“Any agreement reached will open new horizons in [our] relations with all states,” Araqchi told Israel Radio reporter Gideon Kutz. Araqchi also responded with a “Yes” when Kutz asked him whether Israel would be able to live in peace with whatever deal would be reached between Western powers and the Islamic Republic.
Kutz told The Times of Israel by phone from Geneva that he was wearing an Israel Radio press badge when he interviewed the Iranian official, and that “the nature of my questions” made his identity as an Israeli journalist obvious to Araqchi. If so, Araqchi’s readiness to answer questions from an Israeli journalist is highly unusual; Iranian officials routinely avoid all open contact with the Israeli media.
First, Rosh Hashanah greetings, now this. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad isn't around anymore, whatever else you make of this, and we already have heard Netanyahu call Rouhani a wolf in sheep's clothing.

But the news coming out of Geneva is also positive, with both sides expressing optimism that it may be possible to make progress on the nuclear issue, despite many lingering obstacles. Nobody should minimize those obstacles, but it's the first positive news in a long time,

The Golan Front in '73 and Hermonit: Part III

This is the belated third part of my post on the 40th anniversaryof the 1973 war and the neglected battle of Hermonit/The Valley of Tears; Part I appeared here and Part II here. One reason it didn't appear sooner was my belated discovery that the most detailed account in English of this battle, Avigdor Kahalani's The Heights of Courage, is in fact available online in full, and therefore I needed at least to skim it.

In Part II I set up the basic geography of the battle of Hermonit and the Valley of Tears, and discussed the commanders on both sides. This map shows the general area, "Har Hermonit" is labeled and the height marked "+1055" to its southeast is the height known as Tal Makhfi or, to the Israeli tankers, as "Booster."
On October 6 most of the Syrian advances against a surprised Israeli defense line took place in the south where the Golan opens out into more of an open plateau. After initial successes that stunned Israel, the line stabilized because, in part, the Syrian divisions to the south did not want to leave their right flank open to an Israeli flanking attack, and the advance had stalled in the north.

Gen. Abrash
While the terrain was in Israel's favor it had only a few hundred tanks, though in dug-in positions which had allowed careful targeting of the guns, against thousands of Syrian tanks. I noted last time the curious proliferation of sevens in this sector: the Israeli 7th Armored Brigade under Avigdor Ben-Gal and its 77th Tank Battalion under Avigdor Kahalani on Hermonit faced the attacking force of the Syrian 7th Infantry Division (really Mechanized Infantry with an attached Armored Brigade), under Gen. ‘Omar Abrash.  Abrash was a rarity among Syrian generals, trained at the US Army's Command and Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, and showing much more individual initiative than his Soviet-trained colleagues.

His adversary,Kahalani, has left a detailed English language memoir of the battle, which I linked to above; Kahalani was short on tanks and desperate for reinforcement. And in 1973, in part perhaps because of the culture of contempt for Arab Armies' capabilities following the debacle of 1967, Israeli troops were not equipped with good night vision equipment, while the Soviet-equipped Syrians were. (Today, Israel makes its own night vision equipment.)

This battle began in earnest on the second day of the war, October 7, and continued for the next two days. Even though the Israeli positions were at times outflanked by the deep advances of Syrian forces to their south, the Syrians seem to have been concerned about a flank attack on their right. Abrash threw wave after wave of his tanks (mostly T-55s at first but reinforced by T-62s from the line on days two and three) against Kahalani's entrenched Centurions on Hermonit and Booster; Kahalani was increasingly struggling to find reinforcements from any source and at times fighting with half-disabled tanks.
The night attacks had been particularly favorable to the Syrians with their superior night vision but, at dusk on October 8, as Abrash, the sort of tank commander who led from the front, was preparing to advance in his command tank, and armored-piercing round hit his tank and killed him. By some accounts at that moment Kahalani was down to somewhere between three and six fully operational tanks on Hermonit, against an reinforced Syrian assault force. Whatever the numbers, the death of Abrash disrupted the night attack on the eighth. In 20th century Arab warfare the Soviet-inspired downgrading of local command initiative is both debilitating but, on the other hand, usually means that the loss of a commander makes little difference. But in this case, it seems to have done so. By removing Abrash, a commander who displayed initiative and fought his tank from the front, it slowed the Syrian assault until morning, by which time Kahalani was reinforcing.

Dead Tanks in the "Valley of Tears"
On October 9, further Syrian assaults, even including the heroic T-62 which reached the top of Hermonit and is today part of the war memorial there (left). The Israeli lines held, but with incredible displays of courage on the Syrian side, with undreds of tanks left burning and derelict before the defense lines n the so-called  "Valley of Tears."

Soon after, the Israelis turned the tide and began an advanced past the 1967 ceasefire lines and created a salient which threatened Damascus.

The war left neither side decisively victorious and made possible the negotiations wic followed, the Kissinger shuttles and the beginnings of the peace process. Below, maps of the earlier and later phases of the war in the Golan.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Debate Over Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi's Article on Gulf Cities

A week ago, the Dubai-based Emirati journalist and commentator Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi published an article at Al-Monitor called "Gulf Cities Emerge As New Centers of Arab World."  The article has provoked considerable debate online and elsewhere. I think he knew he was throwing a fox into the henhouse from the beginning. He opened the article with these paragraphs:
An old Arab saying goes, “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads.” These three capitals, along with Damascus, were long the hubs of culture and education in the Arab world. Arabs from across the region flocked to these cities to study and work. Sculptures such as the 1958 Monument of Freedom in Baghdad by the great Iraqi artist Jawad Salim and "Egypt's Renaissance," unveiled in 1928 in Giza by the pioneering artist Mahmoud Mokhtar, embodied the ambitions of these Arab cities.
However, over the past few years, as these traditional Arab capitals became more embroiled in civil strife, a new set of cities started to emerge in the Gulf, establishing themselves as the new centers of the Arab world. Abu Dhabi, its sister emirates of Dubai and Sharjah and the Qatari capital, Doha, have developed as the nerve center of the contemporary Arab world’s culture, commerce, design, architecture, art and academia, attracting hundreds of thousands of Arab immigrants, including academics, businessmen, journalists, athletes, artists, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. While these Gulf cities may be unable to compete with their Arab peers in terms of political dynamism, in almost every other sense they have far outstripped their sister cities in North Africa and the Levant.
Needless to say, to Arab intellectuals steeped in the histories of Cairo and Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad, the idea that nouveaux cities like Dubai and Doha are supplanting them is anathema.  One of the first broadsides came from The Angry Arab himself, As'ad AbuKhalil, who true to his usual form minced no words:
What contribution to Arab culture have those cities made, unless you are talking about sleaze, worship of the European, denigration of the Asians, promotion of singers purely based on breast sizes and lip thickness, prostitution mentality (literally and figuratively), gender segregation and repression, the culture of measuring humans by the size of their bank accounts, etc.  Culture, what culture? Cairo and Beirut were known for hosting a culture that allowed (often despite desires of the ruling governments) various political and cultural trends to co-exist and to clash, and for the expression of divergent political viewpoints.  Cairo and Beirut were cities that allowed artists and writers to seek refuge and to express themselves artistically and creatively, and there is none of that in the Gulf.  Yes, academics and journalists are flocking to the Gulf but what have they produced there? What ideas? They go there and they work as assistants and propagandists in the entourage for this prince or that prince.  If anything, the impact of that Gulf oil and gas culture has been quite corrosive on the entire Arab world and its culture.  In that sense alone, yes, Gulf cities do play a role.
Oh, go ahead, tell us what you really think.

In Al-Monitor, the same venue that hosted Qassemi's original article, Abbas al-Lawati responded with a more nuanced assessment, "Gulf States Have Long Way to Go Before Leading Arab World," noting the expatriate nature of so much of Gulf culture:
What makes these Gulf cities so distinct is that each of them, unlike their northern Arab counterparts, arose after the advent of the nation-state, which by nature restricts immigration and imposes a relatively narrow definition of who does or does not belong. The emergence of the Gulf nation-states in the early 1970s effectively slammed the brakes on centuries of migration that led to a level of diversity in these cities that is still there under the surface. National identity was homogenized to make these new nations viable, and nationality — the right to belong —- was restricted to the small group of people whose ancestors had ventured toward these harsh lands from across the region. Any migrants from that point onward were considered guests who would eventually have to go home . . .
In the academic arena, in order to gain fast access to the global stage, these cities have in recent years begun large-scale importing of big-name Western academic institutions that may boast glitzy and high-tech campuses, but cannot guarantee the academic freedom of their Western counterparts. Even more worrying is the transformation these institutions are bringing to the linguistic landscape of these cities through educational reform. Almost every one of these new universities uses English as the language of instruction, and schools, from the primary stage to high school, are in turn expected to adjust their curricula to prepare students for an English-language tertiary education. These cities may be on their way to becoming the Arab world's education hubs, but there's little about them that remains Arab . . .
Today, in each of the cities that were cited as the new Arab centers, foreigners vastly outnumber citizens. Like the traditional Arab capitals, they have become hubs for migrants. The difference is that migrants in the Gulf have residency cards with expiration dates. It is therefore unrealistic to expect Gulf cities to grow to the level they wish if the majority of the population is transient and continuously reminded that it will one day have to leave. Someone who does not feel a sense of belonging will not invest his or her full potential in such a city.
M. Lynx Qualey at the Arabic Literature (in English) blog has a post "Are Gulf Cities the New Capitals of Arab Literature?" The Cairo-based Qualey, while recognizing the influence of the Abu Dhabi Book Fair and Gulf publishing ventures, isn't completely buying it either:
Gulf cities are formidable, certainly. But will they be forces of major scientific and artistic innovation? And, moreover, why would Gulf authors develop their literature in Arabic when so many of the institutions of higher learning teach in English?
Qassemi himself has noted these, and a couple of other, reactions to his original article on his own blog.

It's worth reading all sides in this debate; the contrasts between the old capitals and the new, the old culture and the new, are going to be features of the Middle East over the coming generation.

Lehnert & Landrock Considering Leaving Cairo?

This one's for the Old Cairo Hands: a German Deutsche Welle article (but in English at the link) about the owner of Lehnert & Landrock, the German bookstore in Cairo that has been a fixture on Sharif Street for the better part of a century, who's considering having to close the store.

Rudolf Lehnert and Ernst Landrock were pioneering photographers of the Middle East and North Africa, Lehnert doing the photography and Landrock handling the business side. First starting a photography business in Tunisia, they moved it to Cairo in 1924, after losing the Tunisian business in 1914 when Lehnert, an Austrian, and Landrock, a German, were suddenly enemy aliens. Later Lehnert returned to Tunisia but the business continued under the two names in Cairo, where Landrock opened the bookshop on Sharif Street in 1936, (A history here, at the shop's website.) The shop is today run by Edouard Lambelet, a Swiss step-grandson of Landrock, but the Deutsche Welle story linked above indicates that he is considering shutting down the institution, at least in part due to the instability in Egypt and the collapse of tourism.

Lehnert & Landrock was always one of the best-stocked European bookshops, heavy on German but with French and English represented as well; and it both exhibited and sold prints and postcards from the founders' photography. The photography founded the enterprise that came to include the bookstore.

I suppose, as a historian, I should note that while many of these photographs are of architectural or historical themes, many others, especially the early postcards from North Africa by Lehnert, tended to be of attractive peasant girls photographed topless, so that for example Wikimedia Commons actually has a category of "Orientalist Nude Photographs by Lehnert & Landrock"  (link is Not Safe for Work, of course, or for Cairo of today either).  In true Orientalist style, the nudity was justified for exoticism and ethnographic reasons (also sometimes called the "National Geographic" rule, as a route around the censors in a less liberal age: nudity is acceptable if the setting is exotic and the women are nonwhite). This no doubt enhanced the photographer's fame and sold a lot of postcards, whether those are genuine peasant girls or not. (I suspect paid models, though it's said they mostly come from the Ouled Nail Berbers of Tunisia, who some say included dancers and prostitutes.) These postcards apparently once had a great popularity in Europe between the wars. (Ethnography  always sells.) Those familiar with the bookstore's staid German-Swiss incarnation today may or may not be aware of this aspect of the photographic income that built the establishment.

None of this is mentioned in the Deutsche Welle article, for some reason.

Though I presume such postcards are no longer available openly in Cairo, Lehnert & Landrock's loss would nevertheless mark the end of a great old bookshop. In more modern times its reputation was built on books, and it became a Cairo landmark. I hope it survives.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Columbus Day Holiday; and Early ‘Id Greetings

Today is a holiday here in the US (Columbus Day) and as usual on three day weekends I'm taking a break from blogging unless something drastic occurs. But I also want to offer early greetings to Muslim readers for ‘Id al-‘Adha, which in most countries begins at sundown. ‘Id Mubarak and normal blogging will resume tomorrow.

Friday, October 11, 2013

An Old Picture for Friday, but Nothing Nostalgic About It

I'm still working on the third part of my 1973 Golan post, but it's coming. Meanwhile, I usually leave you with a "Friday nostalgia picture." Nothing nostalgic about this one: this poor fellow is strapped to the barrel of a cannon and is about to be executed. It's said to be in Shiraz, Iran, sometime in the 19th century.

Actually, this is an old and well-attested means of execution; it even has its own Wikipedia article, and for those thinking "how barbarous these foreigners are," may I remind you that in the wake of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the British, who had followed a pre-existing Mughal practice of using it as a punishment for desertion or mutiny, executed quite a few people this way, as this 19th-century painting depicts:

Seelye Sisters Art Exhibit in Kuwait

Though I haven't seen it I wanted to note that MEI Vice President Kate Seelye and her sister have a  multimedia art exhibit which has opened in Kuwait. The sisters are daughters of the late US Ambassador Talcott Seelye and come from a long line of Americans involved in the Middle East, at AUB and elsewhere; the exhibit includes family photos and is aimed at remembering the positive history of the US role in the Middle East. A Kuwaiti review here.

In a Divided Middle East, Will This Year's Hajj Be Peaceful?

With the hajj about to begin, at a time when Syria is at war, Iraq profoundly divided on sectarian lines, Islamists and secularists clashing in Egypt, will the annual gathering of pilgrims around the world be peaceful this year? In the years after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Iranian pilgrims frequently demonstrated, even leading to bans on Iranians attending the hajj. Could the divisions in the Arab world today affect the hajj next week?

Apparently the Saudis are a bit concerned; according to the Interior Minister, Prince Muhammad bin Nayif:
In comments carried by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), the Interior Minister announced that Saudi Arabia will use “sophisticated techniques [and] modern equipment” to ensure the safety of Hajj pilgrims, adding that the 95,000 security officers will be augmented by additional forces from the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of the National Guard, and the Presidency of the General Intelligence.
. . . Prince Mohammed Bin Naif Bin Abdulaziz, who also serves as Chairman of the Supreme Hajj Committee, called on pilgrims to perform Hajj with “tranquility,” leaving their political and sectarian differences aside.
“The Hajj is not a field for political conflicts and sectarian differences, taking into consideration the narrow space and congestion of pilgrims, where any kind of unrest could lead to a disaster,” he said.
“Therefore, the government of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques calls on all pilgrims to adhere to the performance of their rituals and stay away from anything that distracts them from the Hajj and puts them at risk,” he added.
Commenting on the expansion projects being undertaken at the holy sites, the Saudi Interior Minister said: “We have followed the ongoing project by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, to expand the Grand Mosque in Mecca. We are committed to decreasing the number of pilgrims this year due to these construction projects.”
A major concern clearly seems to be potential demonstrations by the Muslim Brotherhood, angered by their ouster in Egypt.

As always, this blog will comment periodically during the hajj, both on its current developments and its hisory and traditions.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Part III of the Golan Post Will Appear Tomorrow

Because of other commitments, Part III of my Golan Heights 1973 post will appear tomorrow. See Parts I here and II here.

The Abduction of ‘Ali Zeidan

President Obama frequently refers to the government shutdown by comparing it to hostage-taking, but here in Washington we have nor yet graduated to actual hostage-taking, like the temporary abduction earlier today of Libyan Prime Minister ‘Ali Zeidan. The kidnapping, apparently by a militia with policy differences with the Prime Minister, lasted only a few hours.

The details are still murky, but there is some speculation that this was in some way linked to protests against the US raid in Libya last weekend, which snatched al-Qa‘ida operative Abu Anas al-Libi. It is unclear whether the Libyan government was informed of the raid, which many see as an infringement of Libyan sovereignty. If so, it may be a reminder to the US that some of the old assumptions about our ability to carry out special operations in friendly countries with impunity may no longer be relied upon; in an era of political transition, governments are considerably more sensitive to public opinion than was the case under the old autocrats.

Another Reason Not to Write Any Story About Sex in the Arab World without Fact-Checking: The "Kuwait/GCC to Test for Gays at Airport" Story

I have learned from experience never to repeat stories involving certain subjects without careful checking. Rule number one: if it involves an Arab country and sex (straight or gay or anything else), check it first. Rule number two: if it involves a person identified as a sheikh (named or unnamed) issuing a fatwa (whether the reporter understands what a fatwa* is or not), check it at least twice. Rule number three: if it appeared only in The Daily Mail, check it at least three times. Rule number four: if it was an unsourced fatwa about sex by a sheikh you've never heard of and was only in The Daily Mail, go to lunch.

*In Islamic law, a fatwa is a ruling issued by a duly constituted judge with the authority to issue such rulings (a mufti). In Western journalism, as I said once before, it means "anything we can get some lunatic sheikh** to say to the press" or on an Internet website.

**Frequently self-proclaimed.

Not long ago we noted that the much-reported "Tunisian women going to Syria for 'sexual jihad'" story was mostly smoke and mirrors. (All utterly true except for the fact that no Tunisian women apparently reached Syria or engaged in "sexual jihad." Other than that, dead on.) Then there was the "Tunisian girl who posted a topless photo faces stoning to death" story, in a country where prostitution is tolerated and topless beaches exist and which hasn't executed anyone in over 20 years (and not by stoning). She spent a short time in jail, in part for desecrating a cemetery. And I spent a bit of time a year and a half ago deconstructing the Egypt "necrophilia law' hoax, in which a credulous media reported that the Egyptian Parliament was about to permit men to have sex with their deceased wives up to six hours after death. (No, it wasn't. See the post for an analysis of where this crazy idea got started.)

And I never even posted the widespread story a couple of years back that said an (unnamed) sheikh from an (equally unnamed) "European country" (Denmark? Kosovo? Andorra?) had issued a fatwa (there's that word again!) saying that women were forbidden to shop for fruits like bananas or vegetables like zucchini because, well, it might give them ideas by reminding them of something else.  This was so totally improbable and unsourced I refused to mention it here, except in retrospect as an evidence of credulity and gullibility, and of course no source for the story was ever found.

(Though of course there really are crazy sheikhs who say crazy things about sex: "Egyptian Salafi: "Shi‘a Are More Dangerous Than Naked Women." (Please note for the record that while I reject this, it does not mean that I think naked women are more dangerous.)

So when over the past day or two we have seen stories with headlines like this: "Gulf states to introduce medical testing on travellers to 'detect' gay people and stop them from entering the country," all my usual alarms went off. That particular headline was in fact in The Daily Mail, so Rules 3 and 4 above allowed me to doubt it. But a far more respectable British paper, The Independent, chimed in with "Gulf states could have clinical screenings to 'detect' homosexuals and stop them entering the country." You'll notice the disstinction between "Gulf states to introduce" and "Gulf states could have": but what kind of "clinical screening" detects gay people?  (After Egypt's "virginity tests" in 2011, this is probably not something you want to dwell on.) While The Independent  is not The Daily Mail, the bullshit detectors were still sounding loudly. But there were screams from people who feared that gay athletes might be barred from the upcoming World Cup in Qatar.

Now, even the original stories made certain things clear. This is not GCC policy; it is a proposal by Kuwait to be put forward at a forthcoming GCC meeting on immigration. The GCC moves at a glacial pace, and even if this were adopted it could take years. It does not at this time apply even to Kuwait, let alone Qatar.

But it isn't really about gay visitors at all. A lengthy post at an international sexual rights website (with what seems like an LGBT tilt), A Paper Bird, and a subsequent confirming follow-up post, make several things clear. First, this is not about visitors to Kuwait; it's about immigrant laborers. Second, it is not about gays: it's directed at transgendered people, especially those who have undergone sex changes. Immigrants seeking to become expatriate laborers already are required to undergo physical examinations. I personally dislike any form of discrimination, but barring transgendered persons from immigrant labor visas is not quite the same as testing every visitor to Kuwait or the whole GCC for gayness, however exactly they do that.

Unlike Iran, which former President Ahmadinejad assured us has no gays, I'm pretty sure they exist in the GCC. Perhaps even at the very highest levels. So no one should throw stones.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Golan 1973 and Hermonit: Part Two

As I noted in Part One of this post yesterday, the fighting in Golan 40 years ago right now during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War tends not to be remembered (except in Israel and Syria) as well as the "Crossing" of the Canal and the fight for Sinai. These posts focus primarily on the fierce tank battles at the northern end of the Golan Heights, around Hermonit and the so-called "Valley of Tears," but first it is worth placing the fighting in the broader context of the Golan Front. This is of course a short blog post and there are many highly detailed accounts for those who want more detail; I have to leave a lot out.

On October 6, the first day of the war, Syria had the advantage of surprise; as is well known, Israel only began full mobilization a few hours before the attack, and there had been no time to reinforce the Golan, where Israeli troops were deployed in ten strongpoints slightly behind the 1966 ce. asefire lines. Against this relatively small infantry presence and only 177 Israeli tanks, Syria deployed three infantry divisions, each with a attached armored brigade; two armored divisions were in reserve behind the lines. Total tanks available were about 1,400. Israeli Chief of Staff Gen. David Elazar reportedly estimated that the Israeli defenses were sufficient, so low was his estimation of Syrian fighting ability. Syria, for its part, realized it would require at least 24 hours for Israeli mobilization to reinforce the Golan, and its war plan called for it to recover the Golan by the end of the first day.

From north to south the Syrians deployed their 7th Infantry Division,  9th Infantry Division. and 5th Infantry Division. On the Israeli side, Officer Commanding Northern Command Yitzhak Hofi was away, meeting with Elazar, when the war broke out.

In the first day's fighting, the Syrian thrusts penetrated deep in the central and southern parts of the line, where the ground is more level and the Syrians were able to bypass the isolated Israeli infantry positions. But the greatest blow to the Israelis was Syria's helicopter-borne seizure of the Israeli observation post on Mount Hermon, a key early warning and listening post at the northern end of the Golan, from which the whole battlefield could be seen.

Much of the first day's  battle was focused on the central and southern sectors, with the Syrian 5th Division attacking toward Rafid in the south, and the 9th Division pushed through to Kushniya and sought to take Quneitra, the Golani capital before 1967, and threaten the Israeli headquarters at Nafakh. On October 7 Syria committed the 1st Armored Division to support the 9th, but as Israeli reserves began to firm up and resistance stiffened, the southern and central sectors stabilized. It was in these sectors that the Syrians penetrated farthest into the occupied Golan, reaching the TAPLINE Road and the Quneitra area, but they failed to reach their goal of reaching the Jordan River Bridge at Banot Ya'acov/Banat Ya‘qub, though at its height, one Syrian column was within three miles of the bridge.
The crucible of the fiercest tank fighting was on the northern end of the Golan Front, particularly from October 7-9.  The earlier post shows the war memorial at Hermonit at the heart of the fighting.

Hermonit is a small mountain that lies southward from Mount Hermon (Arabic Jabal al-Sheikh), the landmark mountain on the Israel/Syria/Lebanon border. Just as Hermonit means "Little Hermon," it is known in Arabic as "Tal al-Sheikh," (hill of the sheikh) while Hermon is "Jabal al-Sheikh" (mountain of the sheikh, said to be derived from its snow cover, like a white-haired sheikh's). Some say the Druze have a legend that Hermonit is the wife of Hermon. Hermonit is one of the many extinct volcanic cones that form the eastern spine of the Golan.

To the south of Hermonit lay another volcanic cone known in Arabic as Tal al-Makhfi and to the Israelis as "Booster." A ridge running between the two came to be known as the "red ridge"; in front of that ridge was a valley which, when littered with burning tanks after the battle, came to be known as the "Valley of Tears."

Gen. Abrash
In the northern sector the Syrian 7th Infantry Division (really a mechanized division with an attached armored brigade) led the attack. Its Commander, Brig. Gen. ‘Omar Abrash, faced the Israeli 7th Armored Brigade under Avigdor "Yanush" Ben-Gal. General Abrash, who would be killed in the battle, was somewhat unusual for the largely Soviet-trained Syrian Army: he had attended the US Army's Command and Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. Ben-Gal, who had fought in the 1956 and 1967 wars and who would command in Lebanon in 1982, had been moved into position just as the war broke out.

Stationed on Hermonit was the 77th Armored Battalion, led by Col. Avigdor Kahalani, who would make his name in the battle.  It is curious that all the units at the start of the battle had 7s in their designation.

In Part Three, a look at the battle itself and the later events of the 1973 war in the Golan.

US Statement on Aid to Egypt

As expected, the US State Department has announced that the US will be "recalibrating" US aid to Egypt, reducing the military aid component, (For my own preliminary concerns and reservations, see this post from yesterday.)

The State Department announcement is not very detailed and does not mention amounts:
The United States and Egypt have a longstanding partnership and many shared interests, including: promoting a stable, inclusive and prosperous Egypt; securing regional peace; and countering extremism. The United States wants to see Egypt succeed, and we believe the U.S.-Egypt partnership will be strongest when Egypt is represented by an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government based on the rule of law, fundamental freedoms and an open and competitive economy.

As a result of the review directed by President Obama, we have decided to maintain our relationship with the Egyptian government, while recalibrating our assistance to Egypt to best advance our interests. The United States will work with the interim Egyptian government and Congress to continue to provide support that directly benefits the Egyptian people in areas like health, education, and private sector development. We will continue assistance to help secure Egypt’s borders, counter terrorism and proliferation, and ensure security in the Sinai. We will continue to provide parts for U.S.-origin military equipment as well as military training and education. We will, however, continue to hold the delivery of certain large-scale military systems and cash assistance to the government pending credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government through free and fair elections. The United States continues to support a democratic transition and oppose violence as a means of resolving differences within Egypt. We will continue to review the decisions regarding our assistance periodically and will continue to work with the interim government to help it move toward our shared goals in an atmosphere free of violence and intimidation.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Middle East Circassians and the Sochi Olympics

This article, by a member of Jordan's Circassian community, discusses the international Circassian diaspora's attitude toward the Winter Olympics in Sochi, once the heart of the Adyghe or Circassian people's homeland.

Between 1860 and 1864, at the end of the Russian conquest of Circassia, there occurred one of the first great ethnic cleansings of the 19th century, one now largely forgotten except by the descendants of the victims. Hundreds of thousands died, and more were deported by Tsarist Russia to the Ottoman Empire, where they formed, and still form, distinct ethnic communities. Turkey, Syria, Lebanon,Jordan, Israel, Iraq and Egypt all have Circassian populations, perhaps most visible in Jordan where the overall population is small and they are a sizable minority. (Some of the "Circassian" communities of the Middle East include other peoples expelled from the Caucasus (particularly Chechens), but I'm speaking here of true Circassians, the Adyghe people.

The article linked to above (despite sometimes spelling Caucasus as "Caucuses," presumably due to a spell-checker) notes how the choice of Sochi for the Olympics has awakened a national solidarity among the Circassian diaspora, one not seen before.

CNN Reporting US Will Cut Some Aid to Egypt

CNN is reporting that the US will cut some (but not all) of its military aid to Egypt in response to the violence of the last weekend. I'm as disgusted by the violence against demonstrators as anyone, but this is our sole remaining leverage with an Egypt increasingly soured on us. I hope we remember how we punished Nasser for his Czech arms deal in the 1950s by cutting funding of the Aswan Dam.

Within a year he nationalized the Suez Canal and the Russians built the dam anyway. We sure showed Nasser. And made an enemy for a generation.

1973's Forgotten Golan Front: Hermonit and "The Valley of Tears," Part One

Syrian T-62 at the Crest of Hermonit; a steep slope is behind it
The 40th anniversary of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war suggests to me another issue: the often neglected Golan front. Let me note from the beginning that when I call (in the post title) the Golan Front in the 1973 war a "forgotten" front I refer to how the war is remembered in much of the outside world, including Egypt (where the war is wholly identified with the "crossing" of the Suez Canal), and in many of the minds and memoirs of the outside world. In Israel and Syria, the Golan Front is not forgotten. The Golan Heights contain a string of Israeli war memorials, a few to 1967 but others to 1973, including the memorial shown above, containing a destroyed Syrian T-62 tank on the mountain ridge known as Hermonit (Little Hermon).

Few war memorials I have visited do as well (though perhaps unintentionally) to remember the heroism of both sides. What is not clear from the photo here but is immediately obvious when one visits the site is that the ground falls off steeply a short distance behind the tank, and that the tank had managed to advance up a very steep ridge against tank and artillery resistance on the high ground, and had arrived at the crest before it was stopped. While the memorial commemorates the outnumbered Israeli defenders on the ridge, the fact that that Syrian tank crew (presumably soon deceased) reached the ridgeline strikes me as a suitable memorial to their heroism as well. When you stand there, wherever your political sympathies may lie, you can't help but feel the sacrifice on both sides. I get a similar feeling from the Clump of Trees at Gettysburg, but the high ground here is much steeper. It was a high water mark in much the same way.

This video gives a better sense of my point and a sense of the position, though from an Israeli perspective only:

The Middle East is largely good country for tanks. And many of the great tank battles of history have been fought there: El Alamein, Kasserine Pass, Sinai 1956, 1967, and 1973. Sinai and the Western Desert are fine tank country; the Golan Heights is anything but. High, broken ground with steep ridges and gorges and the cones of extinct volcanoes, it's hell for tankers. Yet in October 1973 a ferocious tank battle was fought there, leaving the ground riddled with hundreds of Syrian and Israeli burned-out tanks and APCs, many of which, like the one above, have been left as reminders and memorials.

Also, in conjunction with yesterday's post about Moshe Dayan's request to use nuclear weapons if needed on October 7, it is worth emphasizing that the context of that plea was not the crossing of the Golan, but the breakthrough in the Golan. The crossing of the Canal left Israel with a couple of fallback defense lines, first at the mountain passes (Mitla and Giddi) in mid-Sinai, and secondly in the open desert of eastern Sinai and the Negev, before Israel proper would be in danger. There were no such strategic buffers in Golan: if Egypt had reached its initial military objective of the passes, it would still have been hundreds of miles from Israeli population centers; if Syria had broke through in Golan, it would have been in the Hula Valley and threatening Qiryat Shemona. The nuclear option was first invoked there, where the threat seemed truly imminent.
The above is a wider angle scene of the Hermonit war memorial, with the tank previously shown on the left of the memorial. One can get a somewhat better sense of how the land falls off here.

As the battle went on for several days this will occupy several posts. Next: the ground, the antagonists, and the units involved.