A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, March 29, 2013

Easter Wishes

Easter greetings to those who celebrate on the Western date this weekend (mostly Catholics, Protestants, and those mainly interested in chocolate eggs as well).  Most Middle Eastern Christians who observe the Eastern date have a longer wait this year: not until May 5. I'll wish them the same at that time.

Cairo's Walls

The Guardian has a piece on the walls still blocking streets in Cairo since the clashes of late 2011. which have mostly remained in place. The walls were erected to keep demonstrators in Tahrir Square way from the Interior Ministry, Cabinet offices, and Parliament, and block several key arteries feeding into Tahrir. I've mentioned before that I once lived for a year in an apartment building on the corner of Yusuf al-Gindi and Mohamed Mahmoud streets, across from AUCs downtown (in those days, only) campus; those streets were ground zero for the battles of late 2011. My building is long since gone, but the Guardian does offer this about my old street:
"It used to be a very lively area – there was always people laughing and joking all the time," said Sarah Youssef, a non-governmental organisation director who owns a flat on Youssef el-Guindy Street. "Then after the walls it became very quiet, very dull and sometimes scary. It's become a place where all the weird stuff happens: robberies, theft … Tahrir Square is lively, but then I go home a block away and it's totally dark, there's lots of garbage."
Youssef and her husband have been forced to move out of their flat, partly because of the walls and partly because the teargas frequently used at nearby protests exacerbated her asthma. "For eight months my furniture still smelled of teargas," Youssef said. "One of my neighbours started coughing up blood."
Some residents – usually those blessed with strong arms and dressed in casual clothes – save time by hauling themselves over the walls. But it's tough work, and sometimes dangerous. "My brother tried to get over this week and he broke his leg," said Ahmed Tegi, as he clambered over himself, carrying a bag of juice back to his restaurant on the other side. Many schools straddle the barriers, forcing students to take the long route round. For a time, the only way to one school was through Salima Barakat's house.
"Before it would take two seconds to get to work," added Mansour, the civil servant, who has lived in the area all his life. "Now I have to go all the way round. It's ridiculous. Some of my colleagues have to get up at five in the morning because the traffic is so congested."
The article also includes a video:

Cultural Fusion We May Not Have Needed: "International Topless Jihad Day"?

As humorist Dave Barry used to say, I am not making this up: "4 April is International Topless Jihad Day!"

That is a real, genuine report (though I'm not sure about "serious") from Huffington Post UK and, as you might have predicted, #ToplessJihad now has its own hashtag on Twitter. 

Everyone who never expected to see "topless' and "jihad" used together please raise your hands. I thought so. Do you suspect someone misunderstands the meaning of one or the other of these words?

(For the sensitive or easily offended, please note that some of the quotes cited below in this post use mild slang referring to female breasts, and at least one other stronger offensive word.)

The call is coming from Femen, the Ukrainian feminist protest group who keep showing up to demonstrate topless, but they are capitalizing on the story of Amina, the 19 year old Tunisian girl who posted topless pictures of herself on the Internet. (Egypt's "nude blogger' Aliaa Elmahdy has also recently joined forces with Femen.)

Now, first of all, Amina's story has been wildly sensationalized in the West.  If you must see the pictures, go to my earlier story and follow the links. After her public protest, the usual extreme Salafi sheikh showed up to make the usual Crazy Sheikh "Fatwa" (not an Islamic fatwa but the Western press term for "anything we can get some lunatic sheikh to say to the press"). A "senior sheikh" named Adel Almi that few have heard of kindly expressed the opinion cited at left and, according to Al-Arabiya, urged that she be stoned to stop the alleged contagion. (And indeed, some other Tunisian women have indeed followed suit.)

Though some of them seem to have been deleted, there was a lot of early Twitter chatter about saving Amina, who variously "faces stoning to death" or "could face stoning" for her toplessness. Now, even if you don't much like traditional Islamic punishments, stoning is for adultery, not for topless photos, and both the Qur'an itself and all the Islamic legal schools citing the Prophet himself require four actual witnesses (absent a confession) to the actual act of copulation. Outside of an orgy this is improbable; those stoned for adultery usually are said to have confessed. And besides:
Besides, according to Wikipedia, Tunisia hasn't executed anybody for anything since 1991 and the new government has pledged to abolish the death penalty.

Also, Tunisia's beach resort towns cater heavily to French, Italian, and German tourists and some of those ladies forget to wear tops at times. This isn't really an option for Tunisians, but I'm not sure who's checking passports of topless bathers. (Interesting job, if it exists, though.)

And, just to drive the point further home,  Tunisia not only tolerates but the government regulates prostitution. I am hesitating to say as some sources do, that prostitution is "legal," but it is regulated, though limited and restricted, and the prostitutes reportedly have government IDs. No other Arab country has this level of government tolerance of prostitution; though otherwise Tunisia ranks highest in the Arab world on women's rights issues, it sometimes gets criticism on this one.

So let's say the fears for Amina's being sentenced to death by stoning are a bit exaggerated, but if the government isn't about to harm her, extremists might. Aliaa Elmahdy left Egypt and is living in Europe as a result of her protest. Amina's lawyer (self-identified, anyway) denied she was in a psychiatric institution, as some were claiming, and insisted she was safe at home.

But a major criticism of the Aliaa Elmahdy case was it got more attention than the "virginity tests" and Samira Ibrahim's resistence to them (as a hijabi conservative Muslim she was in many ways more revolutionary than Aliaa). And the sexual assaults and rapes in Tahrir got less attention than Aliaa Elmahdy, at least in the world media.

Others are saying something similar about Amina:

Before returning to the "topless jihad" day, let me add that while I support the right of protest, including protest that calls attention to sexual discrimination and abuse, I'm not sure Femen's idea of topless protest is the right one in the Arab world. Sure, it gets plenty of attention in the West. Amina has one topless picture with a cigarette and with the Arabic slogan "My body is my property; it's not anyone's 'honor' " written on her abdomen, and another in which she is topless, with two raised middle fingers, and, in English, "Fuck your morals" written on her body. (Subtle, huh?) (And as I've noted before, protesters are often more comfortable using English profanity than Arabic, as the Arabic here, though on a naked torso, is innocent enough.)  It surely does get attention, but does it preach to anyone but the already converted? Or does it just (as some Arab feminists fear) fuel the most misogynistic and atavistic fears of a conservative patriarchy and thus undercut women working on real issues of survival and opportunity? Before you fight for toplessness, protecting women (even in hijab) from groping and assault seems a higher priority. I know I don't exactly have standing to hold an opinion here, of course. Nor do I wish to see her or anyone silenced. But many Muslim women may see "Fuck your morals" as meaning "Fuck your religious beliefs," and how far does that differ from "Fuck you"? It will alienate many.

Now, for the whole "topless jihad" thing. Femen's Inna Shevchenko explains the call to "topless jihad' (Note: This gives a last name to "Amina"; I neither know if it's correct nor do I approve of publicizing it if it is)::
We have appealed to the world for support and the world has answered! The fate of the Femen Tunisia activist Amina Tyler has shaken up and united thousands of women across the globe. Amina's act of civil disobedience has brought down upon her the lethal hatred of inhuman beasts, for whom killing a woman is more natural than recognising her right to do as she pleases with her own body.  
For them, we now see, the love of freedom is the most dangerous kind of psychiatric illness, one demanding radical forced treatment in the spirit of fascist punitive medicine. The 'Arab Spring', for the women of  North Africa, has turned out to be a frigid sharia winter that has deprived them of what few political rights and liberties they enjoyed.
Stoning and flogging, kidnapping and rape, forced psychiatric treatment and other sorts of physical and psychological torture are what the new Sharia Caliphate has in store for women . . .
. . . Religious dictatorship begins by enslaving women but a woman's act of self-liberation is the first step toward destroying the sharia regime.  Topless protests are the battle flags of women's resistance, a symbol of a woman's acquisition of rights over her own body!
Femen declares 4 April the day of relentless topless jihad against Islamism!  
Show solidarity with brave Amina Tyler from Tunisia!  Come to the embassy of the Republic of Tunisia and protest topless, with "My Body Against Islamism!" written on your body, take a photo of yourself, and post it on your social network page, as well as on the Femen Facebook Fan Page at facebook.com/Femen.UA.
This day will mark the beginning of a new, genuine Arab Spring, after which true freedom, freedom without mullahs and caliphs, will come to Tunisia!  Long live the  topless jihad against infidels!  Our tits are deadlier than your stones!
Are you certain about that last part? Of all the words I've seen applied to female breasts, "deadlier" is one I'm not really sure I'd have thought of (or want to).  Also, I thought "freedom without mullahs and caliphs" came to Tunisia some time back, and stones weren't in play, but then I've seen Tunisian resort beaches, and perhaps Inna Shevchenko hasn't.

If a whole lot of people in the West want to take their tops off to support Amina on April 4, hey, I certainly won't complain, it's their right, but I doubt if it will change anything.  And I doubt if we'll see much solidarity in the Middle East itself. Sometime in the next few days (when I finish reading it) I plan to review Shereen El-Feki's new book on sexuality in the Arab world, which directly addresses some of these issues. But I feel it really comes down to the question of audience: Aliaa Elmahdy and Amina are great fodder for the Western media, but the women on the front lines are out there fighting in Tahrir Square and elsewhere against harassment and rape. Luck and safety to Amina, but more power still to the women at the front lines.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

New Feuds: MB versus Al-Azhar and (Maybe) General Intelligence?

 The Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was already embroiled in its latest round of sparring with the judiciary, and now it's being challenged by another key institution, Al-Azhar, and (depending on whose version you credit), maybe an even more formidable foe, the General Intelligence Service (Jihaz al-Mukhabarat al-‘Amma,  جهاز المخابرات العامة). Though both parties are denying talk of a feud between the Brotherhood and the Mukhabarat, anyone familiar with the history of either institution is unlikely to be surprised.

First, Al-Azhar. The new Constitution provides that Al-Azhar's Senior Scholars' Authority is the final authority on issues involving Islamic law. In the past week the Shura Council, the Upper House which is functioning as a Parliament in the absence of a Lower House, pushed through a law promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood authorizing the issuance of Islamic bonds (sukuk). Al-Azhar has now insisted that, consistent with the new Constitution, it must give prior approval to the Sukuk Law. The Salafi Nour Party is supporting Al-Azhar's claim, and also wants al-Azhar to approve any new IMF agreement, since it would involve payment of interest.

One would normally expect this kind of constitutional dispute to be resolved  by the courts, but the President and the judiciary are already at loggerheads over President Morsi's replacement of the Prosecutor General.

There has already been a lot of speculation (denied by the parties, but not silenced) that the Army is increasingly disillusioned by the Brotherhood-dominated Government. Now there's a debate about General Intelligence.

First, several people expressed concern about growing problems between the Brothrhood and the GIS:

Sources close to Morsi, meanwhile, say that the president "faces a coup attempt partially orchestrated and executed by the intelligence apparatus."
In a recent television interview, Morsi himself voiced concern about what he described as "certain loopholes within the intelligence apparatus."

Morsi's statement followed assertions by FJP leader Mohamed El-Beltagi that "an intelligence officer" had been "apprehended" distributing money and weapons to thugs hired to attack Morsi supporters.

This week, Abul-Ela Madi, leader of the moderate-Islamist Wasat Party (an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood) made similar statements, alleging the existence of a wide-ranging conspiracy against Morsi from within the ranks of Egyptian intelligence.
The Wasat Party's Madi's alleged claims were reported like this:
On Tuesday, Madi said at a Wasat Party meeting that Morsi had told him that, during the Mubarak era, Egypt's General Intelligence apparatus had established a secret group of 300,000 paid thugs. He went on to assert that these thugs had appeared during recent political violence.
"President Morsi told me that, several years ago, General Intelligence had formed a secret group of 300,000 thugs, including 80,000 in Cairo alone," Madi had said in statements that were captured on video and circulated online.
He added: "General Intelligence then handed responsibility for this group over to Egypt's General Security Directorate in the interior ministry, which, in turn, handed it over to the State Security apparatus."
The group, Madi went on, "resurfaced again during recent clashes at the presidential palace [between Morsi's supporters and opponents]; this is what President Morsi told me."
But the same link cited above  has the Wasat Party's backpedal:
"The statements were [intentionally] taken out of context in order to make it look as if [Madi] was accusing an apparatus known for its patriotism," the statement asserted.
The party statement clarified that Madi had meant that the ousted regime was still using state apparatuses against its opponents.
The party went on to stress its respect for the General Intelligence apparatus.
"The Wasat Party declares its respect for Egyptian state agencies, including General Intelligence, and reiterates its longstanding position that all sovereign apparatuses – including the military, police and intelligence – should stay out of political conflicts and alliances," the statement read.
Madi, the statement added, "had been speaking about what the former regime use to do, namely, exploit state apparatuses to form gangs of thugs. What we suffer from now is the result of that ugly past, to which we will not return."
Oh, they meant the bad old General Intelligence Service, not the new one! Past and former GIS officers have been noting that the agency is subordinate to the Presidency (link is in Arabic) and politicians are defending it, though one of its former senior officials, Hossam Khairallah, turns the argument around and sees a threat to GIS from the Presidency:
"Anger is boiling over amid such continuing irresponsible statements from the [Wasat] party or other groups close to it," Hossam Khairallah, strategic analyst and former first undersecretary of Egypt's General Intelligence apparatus, told Ahram Online.
Khairallah – who ran in last year’s presidential elections that were ultimately won by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi – articulated the simmering discontent within the ranks of the intelligence apparatus over Madi’s statements, which many of its members reportedly perceived as an insult.
The former intelligence official also condemned Egypt’s presidency for not issuing a statement on the matter. He went on to predict that Egypt's current General Intelligence chief, Major-General Mohamed Raafat Shehata, would resign if the presidency failed to react “appropriately” to the matter and hold those behind the allegations responsible.

Khairallah, for his part, denied that anything of the kind had taken place during his 35-year tenure in the intelligence apparatus, stressing that Egyptian intelligence was devoted to information collection.
"Directing such considerable numbers needs thousands of leaders," he argued. "This is illogical. It has never happened under the rule of any of Egypt's presidents."
Khairallah was of the opinion that providing such information was not in the president's interests and could even jeopardize the state's national security.
"This gives Egypt's foes the opportunity to topple an apparatus that should act as a guiding light to the president," he asserted.
"It is the country's intelligence that should be the president's guide, not the [Brotherhood's] Guidance Bureau, which believes that [former General Intelligence chief] Omar Suleiman left a black box [of information] to the apparatus," he noted.
Khairallah also voiced doubt as to the future of cooperation between the presidency and Egyptian intelligence amid what he described as "attempts to target the intelligence apparatus."
Khairallah believes that any bid to 'Brotherhoodise' Egyptian intelligence would fail, since this would bring the presidency into conflict with the army.
He pointed out that, during Egypt's transitional phase of military rule, former military head Hussein Tantawi had issued a decree stipulating that the head of intelligence should be drawn from a military background. This, Khairallah believes, further rules out any possibility of the 'Brotherhoodization' of intelligence.
Recent weeks have seen scattered reports of the imminent appointment of Mohamed El-Beltagi, secretary-general of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, as interior minister or intelligence chief. Such speculation, however, was later quashed by El-Beltagi, who on Thursday described the reports as "false rumours and fabricated news."
Those rumors may be behind the whole flap, a pre-emptive mood on the part of the intelligence community to block such an appointment.

The late GIS Director Omar Suleiman was a devoted enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Muslim Brotherhood remembers. Most of the GIS senior leadership rose under the aegis of Suleiman and doubtless have little love for their onetime adversaries either,

Some of the GIS' defenders note that it is responsible for foreign intelligence, not domestic. This is not believed by most Egyptians, though technically State Security Investigations, part of the Interior Ministry,has the lead there. Just as State Security has now been replaced by the entirely different (new stationery!) National Security, the GIS Madi says he meant to criticize is a totally different GIS. Or so we're told.

Omar Suleiman is dead. That much is true. (Hmm...)

Headline for the "Déjà vu All Over Again" Files

From Al-:Monitor:"Rafsanjani, Khatami Asked to ‘Save’ Iran." 

It seems ironic, but in some ways a return to the 1990s would be refreshing. (Of course, back then they were said to be close having a nuke too, so that part wouldn't have changed.)

Russians' Photos from Atop the Pyramids

 I'm a bit late and you've probably seen these already, but some Russian photographers managed to (illegally) take some spectacular pictures from the top of the pyramids. If you haven't already, take a look.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Explaining Egypt's Constitutional Confrontation

Zaid Al-Ali and Nathan J. Brown have a piece at Foreign Policy, "Egypt's Constitution Swings into Action," on the Constitutional rulings in Egypt which goes beyond most of the explanations I've seen to date, Rather than try to summarize it, I'll just refer you there.

Qur'an in Tamazight Published — in Saudi Arabia

A translation of the Qur'an (or as Muslims would say, of the meanings of the Qur'an, since only the Arabic text is the literal word of God) into Tamazight has been completed — at Medina in Saudi Arabia. According to this article (in French),  which refers to it as the "first" Qur'an in Tamazight, an earlier translation published in Morocco in 1999 was withdrawn from sale after controversy erupted. The article alludes to some concerns in Algeria that the translation, which allegedly is comprehensible regardless of the form of the language spoken, might promote Wahhabi teachings.

I'm not certain but this may be it. But back in 2007 Lameen Souag noted another "first" translation into Tamazight, which he referred to as "more like the last first Tamazight Qur'an." That post spells out the history in some detail, and no, this one definitely isn't the "first" translation.

UPDATE: See Lameen's comment and link in the comments.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Have Two Syrian Divisions along the Golan Ceasefire Line "Almost Entirely Disintegrated"?

I'm certainly not endorsing this vaguely-sourced report from Israel haYom, but it might explain recent exchanges of fire along the Disengagement Line in the Golan:
Two divisions of the Syrian army, comprising tens of thousands of soldiers, which had been posted permanently along the Golan cease-fire line, have now almost entirely disintegrated, a Jordanian official has told Israel Hayom.  
A senior defense official in Jordan confirmed to Israel Hayom on Sunday that two divisions of the Syrian army, comprising tens of thousands of soldiers, which had been posted permanently along the Golan cease-fire line, have now almost entirely disintegrated. The breakdown of the Syrian army in that region means that the country's opposition has now completely overrun the Israeli-Syrian border area.
According to the defense official, the regime in Damascus no longer has any control over the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
"The regime no longer controls south-east Syria, and most of the periphery has been overrun by rebels and their supporters," the official said. "The Syrian Golan has turned into a no-man's land, ruled by armed opposition militias and extremist terrorists that have infiltrated the country."
The official added that "Iranian Revolutionary Guards and armed Hezbollah fighters who were helping the Syrian soldiers in the Golan area have also disappeared in recent days, abandoning positions and posts full of supplies and ammunition."
I'm no fan of the Syrian regime, but this could be a tinderbox if true.

Well, This is Also MY Reaction to Most Arab Summits . . .

Egyptian President Morsi and the rest of the Egyptian delegation at the Arab Summit in Doha, via Al-Arabiya.

I thought it was just me who thought Arab summits tended toward the soporific.

Cold Cases and Deep States: Suad Husni Case Dismissed for "Insufficient Evidence"

Suad Husni about 1972
I think it may have been Yossarian in Catch-22 who first remarked that just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. And just because Middle Easterners tend to see plots and conspiracies everywhere doesn't mean that some of them aren't real.

A couple of days ago, an Egyptian judge dismissed a case seeking to uncover the truth behind the 2001 death in London of Egyptian actress Suad Husni, who fell, or jumped, or was pushed, from the balcony of her London high-rise apartment. Longstanding rumors that she was involved with Egyptian intelligence have led to speculation of foul play.

Conspiracy theory? Maybe. But consider this; between 1973 and 2007 four prominent, well-known Egyptians in London, three with known intelligence links and Suad Husni with rumors of same, all died mysteriously. But: three of them died by falling from their apartment balconies (or jumping, or being pushed). Starting to seem to push the coincidence level a bit? Oh, did I mention that two of them, though nearly 30 years apart, fell from balconies in the same apartment tower? The Stuart Tower in Maida Vale. No cause for suspicion in any of this, right?

The official Egyptian explanation is that most or all committed suicide,  while the British authorities found cause for suspicion, but no proof.

The four were:

1) El-Leithy Nassif. Commander of the Republican Guard under Nasser and the early years of Sadat. Named Ambassador to Greece, he went to London for medical treatment. Found dead on the pavement under his apartment on August 15, 1973. His wife claimed he was pushed and blamed Anwar Sadat. He lived in and fell from the Stuart Tower.

2. Ali Shafiq. Major General Ali Shafiq's case is unusual in that he did not fall off his balcony. A former Office Director for Nasser's number two man, Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amr, who committed suicide (or in some accounts, "committed suicide") after the 1967 war, he was later linked with Saad al-Din al-Shazly, fired by Sadat during the 1973 war. On July 5, 1977, he was found dead in his home in Harley Street in London, having been dead for some days, but was reportedly found in a pool of blood.

3. Suad Husni. The subject of this post; details momentarily. Died 2001. Fell from the Stuart Tower.

4. Ashraf Marwan. We've written about the Marwan case several times. Marwan was Nasser's son in law. In the Sadat era he headed the Arab Organization for Industrialization, which ran a large segment of Egypt's military industries, and later became an international businessman and apparently a back-channel diplomat and intelligence agent.  In 2007, amid Israeli reports that he was the double agent who tipped off Israel the day before the 1973 war and other allegations, he was found beneath the balcony of his home in St. James Park. His wife (Nasser's daughter Mona) insists he was killed. Some blame Mubarak, others Mossad. depending on their preferred conspiracy theory. But if he was a Mossad asset, why would they kill him? It's said he was trying to market his memoirs when he fell/jumped/was pushed.
Stuart Tower: Watch Your Step

Coincidences? Or perhaps a singular lack of originality on the part of the hit squad's modus operandi over three decades?

Back to Suad Husni. In the 1960s and 1970s she was Egypt's superstar, beautiful, captivating, conveying both innocence and sexiness. She dominated Egyptian films for years. When I arrived in Egypt in 1972 her film Khali Balak min Zouzou (Watch out for Zouzou) had already been in theaters for much of a year, and in that pre-VCR/DVD era, was still playing when I left. It's the usual realistic plot: college student moonlights as a belly-dancer, falls in love with her professor, etc. etc.

She continued to make films through the 1980s and into the 90s, but she also became the Egyptian equivalent of a tabloid sensation with multiple marriages. rumors of a secret marriage to singing superstar Abdel Halim Hafiz. and so on. There would also be rumors that she had links to Egyptian intelligence and to senior political leaders. Born in the poor Cairo quarter of Bulaq, she was popularly called "Cinderella," having become a princess.

In the 1990s she moved to London. She suffered from a back injury and other health issues and gained weight. (There are some mysteries about the nature of her illnesses, which further fuel the conspiracy theories.)

On June 22, 2001, she fell from her balcony. The balcony was, of course, at the Stuart Tower in Maida Vale, the same building from which Nassif fell back in 1973.

She was given a huge burial in Egypt, but rumors began immediately. Suicide was blamed, but it was noted that one slipper was found in the bathroom and one on the balcony, suggesting she had been forcibly moved. More crucially, friends and family said she had contracted for her memoirs and had been making tape recordings of those memoirs.

Only those of you who've never seen a single spy thriller will need to be told that the tapes, which some claim to have seen, were not found in her apartment and have never been found since her death.

Opposition press reports and, eventually, her own younger sister told a different tale: she had been recruited by Egyptian intelligence and worked for it for many years. One of the key figures in this was Safwat Sharif, an intelligence man under Nasser, Information Minister for decades under Sadat and Mubarak, and finally head of the Shura Council until the fall of Mubarak. In short,. one of the most powerful men in Egypt. Other names mentioned include Zakaria Azmi, Husni Mubarak's Chief of Staff. It is also alleged that she was required to provide sexual favors both to intelligence targets and to senior regime figures. And I should note that her own younger sister supports this narrative, despite its scandalous aspects.

I have no knowledge of the facts beyond the press accounts, and while I'm usually skeptical of conspiracy theories, sometimes they're pretty obvious.

But the judge decided a couple of days ago that there's "insufficient evidence." He may well be right: the British courts couldn't find a smoking gun either, but seemed to still be a bit skeptical of the suicide theory. (And please, let's do more for safety measures on balconies of London flats.) Then again, "insufficient evidence" may mean "nothing to see here: move along now."

Am I suggesting that the Egyptian intelligence and security services are still protecting themselves despite a Revolution and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood? That the spooky parts of the Egyptian establishment (the "Deep State") are unchanged? ("Deep State" is a term used of foreign countries like Turkey and Egypt, but how many Presidents of both parties did J. Edgar Hoover serve as FBI Director in the US?)

Oh, why would I even hint at such a thing? I know that the old, hated, evil and all-powerful State Security Apparatus (jihaz amn al-dawla) was abolished and replaced with the totally new and utterly different National Security Sector (qita‘ amn al-watani). (It works for the nation, not the "state," and it's just a "sector," not a sinister "appartus." Nothing in common but that word "security." Hey, they even fired a handful of people at the top and no doubt bought new stationery. No Deep State here.

And insufficient evidence about Cinderella's fall.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Plight of Egypt's English-Language Press

An important roundup at Jadaliyya: The Full Story: Silencing English-Language Media in Egypt..

Passover Greetings

Let me wish my Jewish readers best wishes for Passover (Pesach), which begins at sundown tonight.

President Morsi's Tin Ear (or Incredible Bad Judgtment) Strikes Again

Back when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was ruling Egypt we frequently had to address the question of whether the SCAF was genuinely oppressive or just mind-bogglingly incompetent. Since the ascendancy of Muhammad Morsi, there is accumulating evidence that, while he may lean toward the first, he is exceptional at the second. I could go back and enumerate the incidents since last summer when he has said the wrong thing at a time that demanded diplomacy. Sometimes it's a gesture or the absence of one — skipping the funeral of the dead border troops or the enthronement of the Coptic Pope — or stupid denials for his Brotherhood constituency (denying that Egypt thanked Israeli President Shimon Peres for Ramadan greetings, though Israel published the greetings delivered by the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv), and many instances of Mr. Morsi saying things that alienate people. His foot in mouth disease has not abated, unless hejust really doesn't care,

Yesterday, Morsi was speaking to a conference dedicated to an Initiative to Support Women's Rights and Freedoms. Please note that audience. Over the past few days there had been a series of clashes between the Brotherhood and its opponents around the MB headquarters in Muqattam. These descended into violent clashes, with each side blaming the other. Morsi chose the opportunity of his  public speech to denounce those who riot and use violence as seditious, and to promise extraordinary measures if the troubles continued. So far, pretty standard rhetoric and bluster. Both Husni Murbarak and. after him, SCAF, used to then blame foreign hands, "outside agitators," agents of some foreign power. The rhetoric may suggest, or even name, Israel and/or the US, or (under Mubarak) Iran, or (today) the UAE. Morsi didn't name names, but he used a rather bizarre, and arguably indelicate, image in evoking outside meddling. The Egypt Independent:
President Mohamed Morsy threatened Sunday that “whoever sticks his finger inside Egypt, I will cut it off.”
“I can see a couple of fingers getting inside by nobodies who have no value in this world, thinking that money can make them men,” Morsy went on in a remark that could have sexual connotations in Egyptian dialect, something that has raised criticism and led to a wave of jokes on social networking websites.
Let's come back to those "sexual connotations in Egyptian dialect" in a moment. Here's another version:
"No one in our neighborhood wants this nation to stand on its feet. I will cut off any finger that meddles in Egypt," he said alluding to alleged foreign interference. "I can see two or three fingers that are meddling inside," he said without elaborating.
Longtime readers of this blog, and most Egyptians (especially Egyptian women) should see the problem immediately. Consider:

1) President Morsi is addressing a women's rights conference.

2) This is a delicate subject. Almost nothing has angered Egyptian women more than the so-called "virginity tests" administered to unmarried female demonstrators two years ago, in which the army manually examined the women to determine if they were virgins, by, essentially, inspecting them digitally. Neither Morsi nor the Muslim Brotherhood had anything to do with that, but (while the courts denounced it and the Army said it won't do it any more), no one has ever been convicted in the violations which Egyptian women justly equate with digital rape. (There's a cruder two-word term, alliterative, that starts with "finger.")

3) Now, class, can anyone tell me why many Egyptian women might find it offensive when their President, speaking to a women's rights conference, might use imagery like "a couple of fingers getting inside" and "two or three fingers that are meddling inside"? As the Egyptian Independent article delicately puts it, it's "a remark that could have sexual connotations in Egyptian dialect."

Two questions:

1) Is there any language in which it  doesn't have sexual connotations?

2) Is Morsi: a) a misogynist deliberately insulting his audience; b) a failed comedian; c) didn't realize what he said because he is too c1) dumb, c2) incompetent, c3) naive, c4) the Manchurian candidate, or c5) all of the above?

For those who know Arabic:

Friday, March 22, 2013

Weekend Nostalgia: Early Photos of Heliopolis

For your weekend nostalgia needs, a collection of old photos and postcards of the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis in its early days. Above is the palace of Baron Empain, who laid out the new suburb, and which I've noted before.

Heliopolis was laid out in 1905.

Below, an early airplane over Heliopolis during a 1910 airshow. Many more at the link above.

Another Outbreak of Topless Protest, This Time in Tunisia

The latest round in the culture wars is being waged in Tunisia, where a young woman named Amina, apparently seeking to emulate Aliaa Elmahdy, has posted photos of herself topless online with protest slogans on her body, claims to belong to the protest group Femen's Tunisian branch, and has provoked denunciations and death threats. As usual I won't post the pictures here, but most of the links below do so. An account in English here (link contains nudity and strong language); a more subdued Tunisian account here; and a French account here.

Islamists apparently have hacked the website and put up Qur'anic quotes; there are reports she has been threatened with death by stoning. Unlike Elmahdy, who used her full name and posed fully nude, "Amina" is not using her last name, apparently, and only appeared topless. And of course there's a Facebook page.

As I've noted elsewhere, Elmahdy found herself in de facto exile from Egypt; perhaps Amina can retain her anonymity, but Tunisia today is not the Tunisia of Bourguiba.

Miqati Resigns; Lebanese Government Falls

Lebanon's government fell today when Prime Minister Najib Miqati resigned following a Cabinet deadlock and amid deepening Sunni-Shi‘i clashes, especially in Miqati's home base of Tripoli.  The Cabinet was unable to reach agreement over electoral changes and over extending the term of Internal Security Forces head Ashraf Rifi, also a Sunni from Tripoli. (Also see Qifa Nabki here.)

I don't talk much about Lebanon's internal politics very much here, but I doubt if I have to dwell on the fact that the sectarian violence in Tripoli and elsewhere in the past year is a direct reflex of the Syrian conflict, With Cabinet disagreements over the electoral system threatening to torpedo parliamentary elections due this year, Lebanon may be embarking on another of those protracted political vacuums it does so well. But this time, with the added explosive factor if events next door,

UPDATE; There are reports she has been sent to a psychiatric hospital.

Richard Perle Agrees with Cheney and Rumsfeld: Twas a Famous Victory

Following previous comments by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle doesn't think we should question the wisdom of the Iraq war, though Iraq is sort of allied with Iran and Syria these days, telling an NPR interviewer (H/T Gary Sick):
“When you think about this, was it worth it?” she asked.
“I’ve got to say,” Perle responded, “I think that is not a reasonable question. What we did at the time was done in the belief that it was necessary to protect this nation. You can’t a decade later go back and say, well, we shouldn’t have done that.”
Robert Southey, "After Blenheim":
"My father lived at Blenheim then,
  Yon little stream hard by;
They burnt his dwelling to the ground,
  And he was forced to fly:  40
So with his wife and child he fled,
Nor had he where to rest his head.
"With fire and sword the country round
  Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then  45
  And newborn baby died:
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.
"They say it was a shocking sight
  After the field was won,  50
For many thousand bodies here
  Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that, you know, must be
After a famous victory.
"Great praise the Duke of Marlbro' won,  55
  And our good Prince Eugene"—
"Why 'twas a very wicked thing!"
  Said little Welhelmine;
"Nay—nay, my little girl," quoth he,
"It was a famous victory.  60
"And everybody praised the Duke
  Who this great fight did win"—
"But what good came of it at last?"
  Quoth little Peterkin.
"Why that I cannot tell," said he,  65
"But 'twas a famous victory."

This is the first time Richard Perle has ever inspired me to quote one of the Romantic poets.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Ahram on Tensions between Egyptian Army and Hamas and MB

Here's an interesting piece at Ahram Online on growing tensions between the Egyptian Army on the one hand and both he Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas on the other, involving recent allegations of Palestinians found at Cairo airport with maps of Egypt, of alleged Hamas involvement in the killing of 16 Egyptian border troops at Rafah last August, and other issues relating to Sinai security. While a lot of it seems based on rumor, it is yet another side that the Army is not entirely happy. Given the close links between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood (the Gaza MB, which became Hamas, was created by the Egyptian MB years ago), it seems worth noting.

King ‘Abdullah II: Backing Away from an Interview

King ‘Abdullah II of Jordan is next on President Obama's list for his Middle East tour, which moves to Jordan tomorrow. He'll be fresh from a bit of controversy: an article in The Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg, "The Modern King in the Arab Spring." It's a very candid interview in which the King is quoted on many of his neighbors, saying nice things about Netanyahu, not-so-nice things about Morsi and Erdogan (warnung if the rise of a "Muslim Brotherhood crescent" from Egypt to Turkey).

The damage control started almost immediately: a "senior official at the royal court" said the interview contained errors and inaccuracies (Arabic link); a royal Facebook fan page noted Goldberg had served in the IDF; in effect, the King (or that "senior official f the Royal Court) repudiated oarts of the interview.

There's a good analysis by Jordanian blogger Naseem Tarawnah here, and also more on the damage control here,

Lynch: What's Missing from the Iraq Debate?

Marc Lynch's latest needed to be said: "What's Missing from the Iraq Debate? Iraqis."


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Lameen Souag Surfaces with Four Posts Worth Noting

I've fairly frequently linked (given the infrequency of his posts) to the linguistic posts of Algerian blogger and Berber/Saharan languages linguist Lameen Souag at his Jabal al-Lughat blog, most recently on his post about a Chinese description of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate.

In recent years he's been a little silent, being the sort of person (though I only know him online) who gets distracted from blogging by distracting stuff like writing and defending a doctoral dissertation, getting married, moving from England to France, starting a teaching career, writing books, and so on. Anyway, he seems to be back with a vengeance. Lately he's been posting frequently, and in fact his last four posts all should have relevance to those with an interest in the Maghreb. Links to each with a few comments;

Learn Tamezret Berber with Cartoons. Tamezret is a small Tamazight (Berber)-speaking town in southern Tunisia, and a center of the Amazigh revival in that country. There are now several sites devoted to its local dialect, including one using cartoons.

The Language of Academia: Algeria and France. Despite a quarter century of Arabization in the primary and secondary schools, half the courses in Algerian universities are still taught in French.

Review: La question linguistique en Algérie. Review of a book by Chafia Yamina Benmayouf (also quoted in the above post). She apparently is an unapologetic Francophone, disdainful of Arabization, and equating French with "modernity." Lameen disagrees:
As for her vision of the future, I would consider it close to a worst-case scenario. Her tactical and qualified support for Algerian Arabic does not entail actually using it for anything important; while rather hostile to Standard Arabic as a medium for university education, she takes it for granted that French is appropriate in that context, and indeed is the perfect vehicle for anything related to modernity. But, frankly, I do not want a French-language-mediated "transfer of modernity from the north shore to the south shore of the Mediterranean" (p. 118); I want an Algeria with the self-confidence and self-awareness to learn from a variety of examples and choose its own path, not mechanically follow in France's footsteps. Nor do I believe that relegating "modernity" to a foreign language is likely to help Algeria achieve it!
Nonetheless, I'm glad I read the book. It's fascinating – if sad – to discover that there exists an Algerian intellectual prepared to take a position this extreme in favour specifically of French; I don't believe I've ever met one. Could one find a corresponding phenomenon in France, I wonder – some professor eagerly advocating for more English in the bureaucracy and the universities, and condemning supporters of French as narrow-minded nationalists?
Didn't they kick the French out 51 years ago? But this is still a controversy in Algeria, were many senor officials still aren't that comfortable in literary Arabic.

Ethnologue Update Comments. There's a new version online of the standard Ethnologue reference on world languages, itself a controversial issue at times; Lameen assesses the improvements (and flaws) of their coverage of North African and Saharan languages. including one Mauritanian language, Imeraguen, which apparently may not even exist.

The Chemical Issue: Turning Point in Syria?

Considering the ambiguities of the evidence so far, the controversy over allegations that chemical weapons were used in Syria, much of the political posturing seems premature. The issue came up on President Obama's first day in Israel, with the Israelis saying they are convinced that chemical weapons were used. The trouble is, there isn't much evidence.

Though most Western reporting has focused on the assumption that the Asad regime was behind the alleged chemical use, it was the Asad regime that first reported the claim, blaming rebel forces. The most publicized video also shows victims in a government hospital. Now each side is blaming the other, but why would the regime have made the first charge? Possibly to justify a retaliatory use?

But what chemical weapon was allegedly used? Questions are being asked but not really answered. The video shows people in a hospital in masks, and some on respirators, and complaining of pain in the chest. But there is no visible burning of the skin as many chemical weapons would produce, and the results do not look like highly lethal nerve agents were used.

The coincidence of these allegations with the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war, launched to stop weapons of mass destruction that weren't present, should be an added reason for caution in such an ambiguous situation.

The recent rebel victory in the city of Raqqa,  giving them control of their first major city and first full province (though they control much of Idlib province as well), (see also here), could be seen as s turning point for the war, and the regime could be feeling cornered and ready to use chemical weapons. But the evidence for that is by no means in.

Thoughts for Nowruz: The Haft Sin Table, and Time for a New Day?

Spring begins today, and the ancient spring/New Year's festival of Nowruz, common to Iran and to peoples whose culture derives from Ancient Persia one way or another — Iranians and Kurds and Turks and Azeris and Afghans, a great many Central Asians, some Balkan Muslims, Syrian Alawites and Turkish Alevis, the diasporas of all of the above, and Zoroastrians and Baha'is wherever they reside — it is the New Year (in the Iranian Solar reckoning, 1392). Today is the actual equinox, when many will celebrate; tomorrow is officially the first of Farvardin in the Persian calendar, and thus the "official" date.

The traditional Haft Sin table, where the table is spread with seven items starting with the letter "s" (sin) has its roots in an earlier Haft chin of pre-Islamic times. There is an older version, which includes items such as a mirror and a fish in water (still used by Zoroastrians and others: left), and a newer version with mostly seeds and foodstuffs, more common today (below right).

But given the growing confrontation with Iran over its alleged nuclear program, the coincidence of the tenth annversary of the war with Iraq (when a war over a nonexistent WMD capability led to a decade of disorder), and President Obama's visit to Israel (main cheerleader for pressure on Iran), I thought it might be time for a simple reminder: Nowruz, though usually translated as, and equivalent to, "New Year," does not in fact mean "New Year": it literally means "New Day."

To Americans, Israelis, Iranians and all who mark Nowruz, Nowruz Mobarak: may all of us find in this year a New Day.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Debate Over FSA at Syria Comment

Over st Josh Landis' place, Syria Comment, there has been an interesting exchange over the Free Syrian Army. Leading off was Aron Lund, with the provocatively titled "The Free Syrian Army Doesn't Exist":  and the response by Koert Debeuf, "The Free Syrian Army Does Exist and Gets Stronger Day by Day." The latter also has a response by Lund. I don't think I can do either justice in a comment, so I'll simply refer you there, Of course if you're seriously following Syria and aren't reading Josh's columns daily, what's wrong with you?

Obama's Nowruz Greetings

It's the eve of Nowruz (actually, the astronomical solace is tomorrow, but the first of Farvardin, the Persian Calendar  New Year, is March 21, so when it's celebrated may depend on the country: it's not just Iran but Kurdistan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, much of Central Asia, Zoroastrians and Baha'i everywhere, etc.) President Obama, ironically on the eve of his trip to Israel, recorded his Nowruz greetings to Iranians::

I'll post my own in due time.

A Rare Article on Egypt's Shi‘a

 Ahram Online had a piece yesterday about Egypt's small Shi‘a community, timed perhaps to the recent celebration of the mawlid of the Prophet's grandson Hussein. It's a popular feast in Cairo, but each year there are Sunni efforts to make sure the Shi‘a, for whom Hussein is the third imam, do not celebrate publicly with Shi‘a rites,

Egypt has only a tiny Shi‘i community, though as noted in the article its exact numbers are disputed; under the Fatimid Caliphate Egypt was a Shi‘ite country, and al-Azhar itself was a Fatimid foundation, One of the Fatimid gates of the city still has the Shi‘i version of the shahada inscribed (". . .and ‘Ali is the Wali of God"). But today the Shi‘a are small and mostly invisible.

You wouldn't know it from some of the rhetoric, however, Under Husni Mubarak, with Egypt feuding with Iran, they were sometimes portrayed (as they also are in Bahrain) as a potential Iranian Fifth Column, When President Ahmadinejad visited Cairo recently, the Salafi Nour Party erupted in fury at this welcome given to a Shi‘ite. Last year, before the dissolution of the lower house of Parliament, a deputy introduced legislation warning of a "Shi‘a tide." After a Lebanese Shi‘ite cleric visited Egypt around the same time, the government shut down a Shi‘ite Husseiniyya he had opened. Iran explicitly denied involvement at that time.

Though the community is small in Egypt, they do feel discriminated against. (They are, however, considered Muslims legally, so are not denied public schooling, as is being threatened against the Baha'i. Egypt recognizes only Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and treats all Muslims, basically, as Sunni.)

To an outsider the Salafi alarm about a "Shi‘a tide" seems to be one of those cases, rather like anti-Semitism in Japan in the past, where the prejudice seems to exist despite the lack of a visible minority. The minority does exist in this case, though small and rarely outspoken. The appearance of the Iran Online article seems noteworthy in acknowledging its presence without denouncing it as a Fifth Column,.

Monday, March 18, 2013

This Sort of Photo was Made for Social Media . . .

. . . and Egyptians on Facebook and Twitter are predictably having fun with it. President Morsi is in Pakistan, and has been given an honorary degree by the National University of Science and Technology, which apparently required this ceremonial dress,
In fact, this is not some lodge initiation; it seems to be the university's academic garb:

Walking in Cairo

Here's a good interview at CairObserver with Nabil Shawkat about walking in Cairo. As a onetime avid hiker through the more obscure routes in the older quarters of the city, it brings back memories, though in those days we didn't have GPS and the ability to post our routes online with accompanying photographs, as Shawkat does periodically at Everytrail. If you know Cairo well, or want to, read the interview, and check out some of the itineraries at the link.

Yemen's National Dialogue Begins

Yemen's "National Dialogue," an effort to resolve the divisions that have wracked the country since President Salih stepped aside (but didn't entirely leave the stage), is getting under way. I'm no Yemen expert, so I'll refer you to those who are. For some background, let me recommend Danya Greenfield, "Overcoming the Pitfalls of Yemen's National Dialogue"; Stephen W. Day, "Can Yemen Be a Nation United?"; and Ahram Online talks to Yemen's Minister of Legal Affairs: "Saleh Loyalists Impeding Transition, Yemeni Minister Says."

Iraq: Thoiughts Ten Years After

Everyone seems to feel an obligation to note the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War. All I have to say is that the most important lesson of all is not to repeat the fundamental mistake we made. What seemed at the time to be a convincing body of evidence of weapons of mass destruction (which never materialized) persuaded US political figures from both sides of the aisle to support a war that, delusionally, many felt would be quick, easy, and transform the Middle East. It was neither quick nor easy, and its regional impact has been quite different from those pipe dreams of 2003.

Now, especially, with the Iranian nuclear issue simmering away, would be a good time to remember that war is a last resort, not a first one, or should be for democratic states; that all wars have unintended consequences; and that serious intelligence analysis should base its conclusions on the evidence it gathers, not tailor the evidence to desired conclusions. Ten years and two wars later, that should be an obvious lesson, yet there are those who clearly haven't learned it yet.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Greening of the Pyramids and Sphinx

 I did my Saint Patrick's Day post on Friday, but couldn't resist passing this along. Via Zeinobia's Egyptian Chronicles blog, the Irish Embassy in Cairo arranged this on Thursday evening:

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Annual Saint Patrick's Day Post on the Links Between Ireland and Egypt

Coptic Wheel Cross
Sunday is Saint Patrick's Day, and traditionally each year I repeat my 2009 post on the tenuous but genuine evidence of links between the early Christian church of Ireland the early Coptic church.

Coptic Ankh Cross
There were certainly links of some sort; there is an Irish pilgrimage book describing visiting the desert of Scetis (Wadi Natrun); there is a reference to three Egyptian monks burief in Ulster; a bottle for holy water or oil found in Ireland shows the twin camels of the pilgrim shrine of Saint Menas near Alexandria, and perhaps most obviously both Copts and Celts used the wheeled cross emblem. In the years since my original post, the Faddan More Psalter, dug up in an Irish bog, has a lining of Egyptian papyrus

Irish Standing Wheel Cross
Even Saint Patrick himself reportedly studied for the priesthood at the Abbey of Lérins off the southern coast of France, an abbey following the rule of St. Anthony of Egypt and perhaps including Egyptian monks. The Christian Mediterranean was much more unified in those days of late antiquity, and before the Coptic Church and the Western churches divided after the Council of Chalcedon.

Celtic Wheel Cross
(The Irish dating for Easter was also different from that in Western Europe, and nearer the eastern tradition.)

For more details see the original 2009 post.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Speaking of St. Francis: The Saint Meets the Sultan

Since the new Pope has taken the name Francis, there has been a fair amount of discussion of Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis himself (and the Franciscan Order to this day) had strong Middle Eastern connections. Those who have visited Christian sites in the Holy Land may be aware that in most cases the Catholic sections of the Holy Sites are under the control of the Franciscans, through the Custodiae Terrae Sanctae, .the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.

Fra Angelico
The origins of the Custody of the Holy Land date from the time of Saint Francis himself, in the midst of the Crusades; by the 14th century, after the end of the Crusader states in 1291, the Franciscans persuaded local Muslim rulers to grant them rights to the Christian Holy Places, and this arrangement has persisted, with various ups and downs, through Mamluk, Ottoman, British Mandate, and Israeli rule in Jerusalem and other holy sites. But the origins of the tale belong to the time of Saint Francis himself, and the curious circumstances of his meeting with the Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt, al-Malik al-Kamil, fourth Ayyubid Sultan and a nephew of Salah al-Din (Saladin). During the fifth Crusade, during the siege of Damietta in Egypt in September of 1219, Saint Francis, a pacifist, crossed the lines and reportedly met with the Sultan. There is no clearly reliable account of what was said; Francis was apparently seeking a truce, and according to some Christian accounts, sought to convert the Sultan to Christianity.
Gustave Doré
That did not occur, of course. Later Franciscan hagiography added a story that Saint Francis offered to undergo a trial by fire to prove the truth of Christianity, and survived it. That story, and the mere fact of the meeting between the saint and the Sultan, have fascinated artists from Giotto and Fra Angelico down to Gustave Doré.

Though we know little about the actual encounter, so encrusted with legend today, this has not deterred a considerable literature on the theme, including academic studies and even lengthy accounts.:  I refer you to these for a full discussion, and provide some of the artistic interpretations through the centuries..