A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Senussi Campaign: Action at Wadi Majid and Gebel Medwa, Christmas Day, 1915

The holidays and a strained back have impeded blogging for a few days, but I wanted to continue my series on the Senussi Campaign in World War  (see Parts I, II, and III) with a discussion of actions which took place on December 25, Christmas Day, 1915. a century ago last week.

After the mid-December clashes at Wadi Senab and Umm al-Rakham, weather conditions made operations impossible between December 15 and Christmas Eve, so the Western Frontier Force remained in Mersa Matruh, where it was reinforced by a battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade while the Senusi and their Turkish advisers concentrated at Gebel Medwa to the west.

A British spotter aircraft identified the Senussi concentration as consisting of 900 troops in three battalions, four mountain guns and two machine-guns, under Gebel Medwa, on the Khedivial Motor Road to the west.

The overall commander of the Western Frontier Force, Maj. Gen. Alexander Wallace, decided to dispatch an expedition to disperse the Senussi buildup. Once again, the force was divided between infantry moving on the Khedivial Motor Road, and the cavalry making a wide flanking movement through the desert. The infantry column was commanded by Lt. Col. J.L.R. Gordon and included the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs, a battalion of the 1st New Zealand Rifle Brigade, and the 2/8 Middlesex, a British Territorial unit.The cavalry column was commanded by the WFF's overall cavalry commander, Brig. Gen. J.D.T. Tyndale Briscoe, and consisted of elements of the 1/1 Buckinghamshire Yeomanry Regiment (Yeomanry were the cavalry equivalent of Territorials), Hertfordshire and Dorsetshire squadrons of the Composite Yeomanry Regiment, and Squadron A of the Australian Composite Light Horse Regiment. General Wallace and his headquarters were to follow the infantry as a reserve.

The map above shows the thinking: the infantry would push back the Senussi while the cavalry would come up in their rear and block their retreat.

Beginning the campaign under cover of darkness, Gordon moved the infantry out of Matruh at 5 am Christmas Day. As they proceeded towards their objective, the Senussi sighted them around dawn and the engagement began to develop. The 15th Sikhs were in the lead and Gordon noticed that the Senussi were not in position on Gebel Medwa, he sent one o the two Sikh companies to hold he hill and protect his right flank.  By 8 am the Senussi had brought up a mountain gun, which slowed the advance. A Nottinghamshire battery and the guns of HMS Clematis offshore and firing at a range of 10,000 yards. Once the hostile gun was silent,  Middlesex unit replaced the Sikhs on the Gebel, and ll the Sikhs plus the New Zealanders advanced against a ridge line, which thy had secured by 10 am. The infantry side of the action was largely a success, but the cavalry had still not appeared, having been delayed by difficulty moving its guns over rugged terrain, and had also been delayed by a skirmish with Senussi cavalry that occurred in the morning. The cavalry arrived around 3 pm and sought to drive the enemy towards the coast, but by 5 pm the late December light was failing and Gordon broke off pursuit. Both columns were ordered to return to Mersa Matruh.

But the bulk of the Senussi forces retreated to the west. On paper, it was a British victory. They dispersed the concentration of Senussi. he Empire forces lost 13 dead and 51 wounded; they estimated Senussi losses at between 300 and 400 dead and took 80 prisoners. But the bulk of the Senusi force escaped and lived to fight another day.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Greetings and Posting

A Merry Christmas to all who celebrate on the Western date.

MEI offices will be closed until January 4.  I will be blogging though probably at a reduced rate. Tomorrow, Christmas Day, marks the 100th anniversary of an engagement at Wadi Majid in 1915;  and I'll be writing about that early next week, so as not to have to write on Christmas Day.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Isis Pharmaceuticals Becomes Latest to Change its Name

Isis & Horus. The other ISIS would blow this up
The great Egyptian Mother Goddess Isis, wife of Osiris and mother of Horus, seems to be rather out of favor in the corporate world these days for some reason. The latest instance is Isis Pharmaceuticals, which has suddenly decided it would rather be Ionis Pharmaceuticals, whatever that may mean.

Earlier, the Isis Wallet mobile app decided it would rather be called Smartcard. (They must not know the reputation of the Washington Metro, which issues SmartCards as well.) An Isis Bookstore in Denver has been vandalized; a woman named Isis has had her Facebook disabled, and so on. The NYT discusses similar cases around the US.

I guess few businesses are named Isil, IS, or Da‘ish, and the acronym works mainly in English. But lots of things are named for the goddess (especially in Egypt, where hotels, shops, and products bear her name).

Hocine Aït-Ahmed (1926-2015), Last of Algeria's "neuf chefs historiques," Dies at 89

Veteran Algerian political figure Hocine Aït-Ahmed, founder of the opposition Socialist Forces Front (FFS) and the last of the nine "chefs historiques" who launched the Algerian Revolution, has died in Lausanne at age 89 after a long illness.

A Kabyle Berber by background, the erudite Aït-Ahmed helped launch the uprising against France in  1954, alongside Ahmed Ben Bella, Rabah Bitat, Mohamed Boudiaf, Belkacem Krim, Mostefa ben Boulaid, Mohamed Khidr, Larbi Ben M'Hidi, and Mourad Didouche.

He served as the chief diplomat of the Provisional Revolutionary Government (GPRA), based in Cairo, until he and other key leaders were intercepted by the French and imprisoned in 1956. He was released on independence in 1962, but he soon fell out with Ahmed Ben Bella, resigned from the ruling FLN, and founded the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) as an opposition party, though it remained illegal until 1990. Though the FFS is ostensibly a democratic socialist movement and a member of the Socialist International, it has always appealed primarily to the Berbers of his native Kabylie.

Arrested under Ben Bella and exiled to Switzerland, he periodically returned to Algeria once parties were legalized, even running as the FFS candidate for President. As his health began to fail in 2013, he retired as head of the FFS and returned to Switzerland.

With the passing of the last of the nine historic chiefs, one of the few remaining figures of the Revolution still active in politics is, of course, the ailing President Bouteflika.

Mawlid al-Nabi

Holiday wishes to my Muslim readers for the Prophet's birthday, which as I noted earlier just happens to fall in December this year.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

For Christmas Week, More Fairuz Carols in Arabic

I know I've been posting Fairuz singing Western carols with Arabic lyrics; I'll post her and other artists singing traditional Eastern music as the Eastern date of Christmas approaches. For "Silent Night," see my weekend post.

Jingle Bells:

Go Tell it on the Mountain:

Angels we Have Heard on High:

Her version of "Joy to the World" is about Beirut;

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen:

Monday, December 21, 2015

Race for the Bottom: Latest "The Muslims Are Coming" Hysterias

The United States, in part due to the Donald Trump provocations and the San Bernardino attacks, is approaching hysterical levels of Islamophobia not seen since the 9/11 aftermath and arguably worse. The reaction to the idea of allowing any Syrian refugees into this country is still fresh, with governors barring them from their states (which they have no constitutional authority to do), but the Descent Into Stupid seems to be accelerating.

Just last week, Augusta  County, Virginia, a beautiful place in the Shenandoah Valley that I know well, closed its school system on Friday because parents were up in arms over one high school teacher's assignment, as part of a unit in world religions, of an example of Arabic calligraphy and asking the students to try to reproduce it. It happened to be the shahada, seemingly appropriate in a course attempting to explain (not proselytize) Islam. They were not asked to translate it, recite it, or affirm it. But many parents saw it as an attempt to convert their children, or brainwash them in Islam. Apparently the calligraphy alone is magical and can turn young minds into Muslims. (The area is overwhelmingly Christian, but I wonder if the unit on Judaism mentioned the Shema‘ and whether anyone objected.)

I suppose I can see how some religious folk might have qualms about how other religions are taught, but simply seeing the calligraphy of a creed, untranslated, seems unlikely to lead to a wave of conversions, Augusta County has been called the most Scotch-Irish county in the US, and those Ulster Presbyterians may be Baptists or Methodists today, but I wouldn't be afraid of some calligraphy.

Now, there's an arguably even sillier issue. The rightwing Islamophobic folks now are riding this horse:
What, you didn't know the Muslim Grinches stole Christmas Eve? Obviously the Mainstream Media is hiding this at the order of the Kenyan Muslim Obama, right?

Snopes.com has already taken this one apart pretty well, but let me pile on as well.

The Prophet Muhammad's birthday according to the Islamic Sira tradition of the Prophet's biography has been reported since the earliest Islamic traditions as the 12h day of the Islamic month of Rabi‘ al-Awwal. It is not a "new" holiday but instead has been celebrated since the early Islamic world.

As I mentioned in passing in my immediately previous post, the fact that the Prophet's Birthday, Mawlid al-Nabi, falls this week is a rare calendrical coincidence, not a plot. The Islamic calendar is purely lunar, with no intercalary days or months, and is thus 354 days long, while the solar Gregorian calendar is 365 (or 366) days long. So Muslim dates generally fall about 11 days earlier in each solar year and there are 103 Muslim years for each Gregorian century. Muslim holidays rotate backwards through the Western calendar. By pure chance, Mawlid al-Nabi this year falls on December 23 (not December 24 as claimed above).

Strictly speaking if "this year" means 2015, this will be the year's second Mawlid al-Nabi, since 12 Rabi‘ al-Awwal 1436 occurred on January 3, 2015, and 12 Rabi‘ al-Awwal 1437 falls Wednesday.

Christmas Eve is safe.

Holiday Greetings for Yalda

When I offer holiday greetings, I intend to include the whole range of winter holidays celebrated in the Middle East. Hanukkah is already past for this year but more are rapidly approaching: Christmas of course, all three of them (Western, Eastern, Armenian) and, purely by a coincidence of calendar this year, Mawlid al-Nabi as well. So tonight I'd offer Yalda greetings to Iranian and other readers from the Persian influenced world.

Yalda (Aramaic/Syriac for "birth") is the ancient Persian celebration of the winter solstice, which falls today. It originally marked the celebration of the Birth of Mithra, marking the rebirth of the sun at the solstice. I've blogged about Yalda before, and herewith offer greetings yet again.)

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Fairuz: "Silent Night" in Arabic

Just over a week to the first of the Christmases (Western, Eastern, Armenian) Middle Easterners get to celebrate, time for the annual clip of Fairuz singing Silent Night  in Arabic:

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Four Years Since the "Blue Bra Woman" Brutality

Last month I noted the fourth anniversary of the "Battle" of Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo in November 2011, a street I once lived on. But if there was any "Battle" between protesters and SCAF in the last months of 2011 that was truly iconic it was the battle of Qasr al-‘Aini Street on November 16-17, 2011. The main reason is the photo above, the notorious "blue bra woman" photo.

As the video below makes clear the woman, and I'm not certain she has ever been conclusively identified, was wearing a hijab and a black abaya. After beating her with sticks,
the soldiers (Military Police) strip back her conservative religious garb to expose her torso except for what became her iconic blue bra.

The still above shows a soldier's boot only inches from her chest. It's bad enough. The video below, for which I feel obliged to issue a "you're going to want to kill these [insert favorite expletive here]-ing bastards" warning, clearly shows him kicking her directly and forcibly twice, striking both exposed breasts. She appears to be unconscious, but one soldier at least reaches down to cover her exposure before leaving.

The fact she was in religious garb exacerbated the outrage, though there is no justification for stripping and stomping any woman. Or man, for that matter.

There was immediate outrage, but global outage has a short shelf life. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced the "systematic degradation of women." Mona ElTahawy, herself sexually abused and her arms broken at Mohamed Mahnoud, argued for calling the victim "Tahrir woman," but "blue bra woman" stuck. Even the usually demure and cautious Egyptian blogger who calls herself Zeinobia used a rare obscenity for this obscenity (NSFW): We are Fucked!

It was a huge issue at the time but it was Arab Spring (well, it was December, but you know what I mean).

This went the rounds:
For a while, "blue bra woman" was both a feminist and a sexual abuse icon. Four years later she appears forgotten. So do the "virginity tests" of 2011 when the Army decided intact hymens were a matter of national security and fingers were the means of checking.These were human and sexual atrocities (including explicit rape and other violations) that should not be forgotten, but were flushed down the memory hole.

If you are prepared to see sexual brutality, here is a video.What sort of so-called "man" strips a conservatively dressed religious woman after rendering her unconscious with sticks, and then deliberately stomps on each of her breasts? (Obscene responses in the comments will not be censored, and let me know if others are remembering this atrocity. And if anyone knows what became of her, if she even survived.)


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Republican National Security Debate

I don't blog about American politics because it's not my brief and I'll offend half my American readers, except when it relates to the Middle East and the Islamic world, but tonight's CNN Republican debate related to little else, except for some attacks on Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un. So I'll venture a few comments. Even though, being on blood pressure medication, I shouldn't even have watched.
  1. The reality of the Middle East and the perceived reality seem rather different. At a time when Kurdish forces in Rojava and northern Iraq are pushing towards Raqqa and Mosul and the Iraqi Army and its allies are taking Ramadi and the Syrian regime is also advancing, most candidates said ISIS is gaining ground. It isn't.
  2. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (who must have mentioned that he was a Former Federal Prosecutor half a dozen or more times but who is otherwise one of the less alarming candidates) said, "When I stand across from King Hussein of Jordan, I say to him, 'You have a friend again, sir, who will stand with you to fight this fight,' he'll change his mind." I wonder where he plans to stand across from King Hussein, who died in 1999, 16 years ago?
  3. For all Republican Presidential candidates, "BarackObamaandHillaryClinton" now appears to be a single word. And they seem to have created all the ills of the Middle East. A previous President, brother of one of the folks on the stage, was barely mentioned, except in a question.
  4. We shouldn't have supported Saddam Hussein (we did?), Qadhafi (we did?) or Mubarak (well yeah, we did that) but we shouldn't have overthrown them either (did we?).
  5. It's a sad day when the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt has descended to the point where the only candidate who had a realistic picture of events was Rand Paul. 
  6. The question of exactly which Muslims should be barred from the US seems to have replaced the question of whether any should.
I've been, in one job or another, explaining the Islamic world to the US and vice versa for more than 40 years. There were rough moments for US Muslims during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 and of course after 9/11, but I'm not sure Islamophobia has run as high or as openly as right now. Several mosques have been firebombed. Women in hijab (even some women wearing a scarf because it's winter) are being insulted or physically attacked. One example among far too many is here, where an American-born, only half-Iranian notes:
"Today. On a crowded bus. On Michigan Avenue. On my way home from a great job in a city in a diverse country that I was born in. A man screamed at me. Called me a sand ni**er. Told me I was the problem. That I need to get the fuck out of his country," Drury wrote. "I may have been wearing my scarf higher on my head than usual because it was cold out. I may have show looked suspicious [sic] listening to Spotify. I am half Iranian, so maybe it was my skin or my eyes."
This is on a public bus on Chicago's main avenue, in America's third largest city. Everybody on the Republican stage tonight treats Ronald Reagan as a saint, but I don't think St. Reagan, who called America a "shining city on a hill," wanted Americans subjected to such abuse. (The cultural anthropologists among you may note that the word that is asterisked in the Facebook post [sand ni**er] might have appeared without censorship half a century ago while "get the fuck out of my country" would not have.)

Is this who we are becoming? We must always remember that none of us are immune. The land of Goethe and Heine, Beethoven and Bach produced a Hitler; the land of Dante and Petrarch, Verdi and Rossini produced Mussolini; the land of Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, etc. gave rise to Lenin and Stalin.

Let's not go there.

Monday, December 14, 2015

No Further Comment Needed, I Hope

I hope I don't need to contextualize this:

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Senussi Campaign: First Blood at Wadi Senab and Umm al-Rakham, December 11-13, 1915

This weekend marks the centenary of the first serious action between the British/Indian/ANZAC Western Frontier Force in the campaign against the Senussi (Sanusi) in Egypt's Western Desert. See my previous posts dealing with the background to the conflict and with the composition of the Western Frontier Force.,

As we saw, the hastily assembled mix of forces thrown together to oppose the Turkish-armed Senussi forces which had invaded Egypt from Libya had assembled at Mersa Matruh in November 1915, the British abandoning posts farther west at Sollum and Sidi Barrani. The WFF was commanded by Major-General Alexander Wallace and consisted of hastily thrown together infantry and cavalry units from a variety of British, Indian Army, Australian and New Zealand. By December 11 General Wallace felt that the force was sufficiently in place to move out from Matruh and find the Senussi.

A century ago today, Wallace sent out a column under Lt.Col. J.L.R. Gordon of the 15th Sikhs to find Senussi troops believed to be operating around Duwwar Hussein, 16 miles west of Matruh. Gordon took his infantry (the 15th Sikhs minus two companies),west along the telegraph line on the coast, while the cavalry, the 2nd Composite Yeomanry Regiment, along with a section of guns and armored cars, took the Khedivial Motor Road to the southwest.

The Yeomanry or Yeoman Cavalry were the mounted version of British Territorial units, intended for home defense but deployed o Egypt since the Regular Cavalry were needed elsewhere. The Composite Brigade consisted of elements of some 20 different units, and these were neither regulars nor used to working together. among Armstrong's other cavalry was a Composite Regiment of Australian Light Horse, which will also play a role in the coming battle. Though the Light Horse were to become one of the most famous cavalry units in the war, this was again a mix, including elements of the 9th Light Horse Regiment who had not been shipped to Gallipoli, mostly convalescents, horseholders, and the like.
The Yeomanry were sent to patrol in the direction of Samaket al-Medwa along the Khedivial Motor Road. They left at 7:00 AM on December 11. Their scouts were not sufficiently far ahead of the main force to spot danger and the cavalrymen rode into an ambush from several hundred Senussi around Wadi Senab.

The Senussi, armed and trained by the Turks, poured heavy fire on the yeomanry, and a British attempt to turn the enemy's right with help from the armored cars failed.

Gordon, from the track along the telegraph line, could hear the firing but decided he was too far away to help and assumed the cavalry would be relieved from Mersa Matruh.
This finally happened in the afternoon, when Squadron A of the Composite Light Horse, which had only just arrived in Matruh, arrived on the scene. This finally turned the tide and the Senussis withdrew.

The British suffered 16 dead and 17 wounded from the firefight. Of an estimated Senussi force of around 300, the British found 80 dead and took seven prisoners. Among the British dead was Lt Col. Cecil Snow, an intelligence officer.

The cavalry then turned north toward the coast to rejoin Gordon, who had gone into camp at Umm al-Rakham.

After a day of combat both the cavalrymen and their mounts needed rest, so Gordon remained at Umm al-Rakham on the 12th. During the day he was reinforced by elements of the 6th Royal Scots (also a Territorial Regiment) and a supply train. On the 13th occurred the battle of Umm al-Rakham, thwo actions are often subsumed under the name of Wadi Senab,

At 8:30 in the morning Gordon resumed his march toward Duwwar Hussein. He intended to proceed west to Wadi Hasheifiat, and then turn south to Duwwar Hussein. As he approached the Wadi, with the cavalry ahead, the 15th Sikhs in the lead and the Royal Scots on the left, they came under fire from the plateau o the south. It soon became clear that they were under attack from a formidable force of 1,000 to 1,500 enemy, in uniform and advancing in disciplined formations; these were muhafiziyya troops, Senussi "Regulars," armed with field artillery and machine-guns,  trained by Turkish and German officers.

The fighting intensified and the Royal Scots  broke and retreated. The only Regular (Indian) Army troops, the 15th Sikhs, held their ground. When ordered to fall back, the Commander, Captain C.F.W. Hughes, said that would require abandoning the wounded and declined to do so.

Meanwhile Gordon had sought reinforcements from Mersa Matruh and later in the day was reinforced by B and C Squadrons of the Australian Light Horse Composite Regiment and by additional field artillery. In addition, the guns of HMS Clematis off  the coast came into play.

The reinforcements and artillery allowed the British to hold the field. British losses were nine dead and 56 wounded in the December 13 action. But though the British held the field, they could not reach their objective at Duwwar ussein and did not defeat the Senussi. On December 14, the force returned to Mersa Matruh.

They would fight their next battle on Christmas Day.

Yossi Sarid, 1940-2015

The veteran Israeli politician, commentator, and peace activist and former head of the Meretz Party Yossi Sarid died suddenly of a heart attack a week ago today, at the age of 75. Here are two appreciations:
He was often a too lonely but a consistent voice. RIP. May his memory be a blessing. ז״ל

Naguib Mahfouz's Birthday Marked

Though Nobel Laureate novelist Naguib Mahfouz died nine years ago, every December 11 is still celebrated as his birthday in Egypt. Marcia Lynx Qualey at Arabic Literature (in English) notes it with "Another year in the Afterlife of Naguib Mahfouz," complete with plenty of Mahfouz-related links.

On Mahfouz' 100th birthday in 2011 I ran an interview with Raymond Stock, one of his translators now working on a biography: "For Naguib Mahfouz' 100th, an Interview with his Biographer," which is still worthwhile. Stock discovered a record showing he was actually born December 10, but he always  celebrated on December 11, and Egypt continues to mark that as the official date.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Juan Cole on the Ramadi Campaign

Juan Cole asks a useful question: "If Defeating ISIL/Daesh is so important, why isn’t Ramadi Campaign all we’re talking about?"

He notes:
The end of Daesh militarily can be envisioned. But unless the Iraqi government becomes more inclusive and politics successfully with Iraqi Sunnis (and spends some of its billions in oil income to rebuild their cities), then radicalization will remain a threat.
Meanwhile, critics of President Obama’s plan, set out 18 months ago– which involved training of Iraqi troops and rebuilding the Iraqi army. and the offer of close air support to them– may have to eat some crow. That is, they may have to if US cable news bothers to notice that out there in the real world, Daesh is facing another major setback, after its losses of Tikrit, the refinery town of Beiji, and the Kurdish area of Sinjar.
I suspect part of it is thatmost US journalists are based in Erbil and find it easier to report Kurdish advance, and some of it may be that the Iraqi Army''s Shi‘ite militia allies and IRGC advisers don't fit the preferred narrative. (No one is paying much attention to the Asad regime's successes in Homs, either, though not against ISIS.) But it's a valid point.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Judeo-Arabic Dialects in Morocco and Algeria

I'm a little late with this link from November but it tracks well with our own ongoing discussion of Arabic colloquials versus fusha: Lameen Souag over at Jabal al-Lughat writes about "Religion and dialect geography in Morocco and Algeria," about the differences between so-called Judeo-Arabics in those two countries and the adjacent Muslim Arabics. There's more on Morocco than on Lameen's native Algeria but it should interest anyone with an interest in dialect generally and darja/darija in particular. A useful look in fact at how community (religious in this case) may affect dialect more than geography or class.

This Might Be a Sign You've Finally Gone Too Far

The Independent: "Benjamin Netanyahu 'rejects' Donald Trump's comments on Muslims and says Israel 'respects all citizens' rights."

Surprise: New Egyptian Parliament Dominated by Pro-Sisi Forces

I haven't written much about the final results of Egypt's Parliamentary elections because, frankly, Egyptians didn't pay much attention either, as evidenced by the low turnout, which even the official media noted.

While there are still a few challenged results and the President will appoint additional members, Egypt's new unicameral House of Representatives (replacing the bicameral People's Assembly and Shura Council), on the one hand, is not a monolithic body dominated by a single party as in past eras, but rather a mix of many parties and independents representing a range across he ideological spectrum. The catch is the vast majority support President al-Sisi's policies, and the other catch is that the body may have less power than the dissolved Islamist Parliament elected in 2011.

The seats allocated to Party Lists 120, were all taken by the "For the love of Egypt" coalition, a lierl.secularist coalition of a number of parties. The remaining seats, allocated by individual constituency competition, also saw the members of the coalition do well, with the Free Egyptians Party, founded by Naguib Sawiris, the venerable liberal Wafd, and the new and little-known Future of the Homeland Party leading the secular parties. The only Islamist Party running, al-Nour, alsoately well but nothing like 2011 when it was the largest bloc in Parliament.

Now most of the liberal secular parties are negotiating to form a pro-Sisi bloc. There are some differences. The most pro-Sisi elements want, as Sisi himself has suggested, to amend the 2014 Constitution to restore some of the reductions made to Presidential power from the Sadat-Mubarak era.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Senussi (Sanusi) Campaign Begins, Part II: The British Reaction

In Part I of this post on the Senussi (Sanusi) campaign in the Western Desert in World War I, we saw how Ottoman officers infiltrated into Libya to encourage the Senussi Order, which already was resisting Italian occupation in Libya, to attack the British position in Libya as well. Part I ended with the Senussi raids on Sollum and Sidi Barrani and the movement of regular Senussi forces into Egypt.

Senussi (Cyrenaican) Flag
As a historical note, the Senussi used a black flag with a white crescent and star, a flag later identified with Cyrenaica, and eventually incorporated as the middle panel of the Libyan flag from independence to Qadhafi, and again since 2011.

Total Senussi forces were around 5,000 men, regulars and tribal militias, with some Ottoman and German officers.

As I noted last time, Britain had paid little attention to the Western Desert since the Italians in Libya were now allied; in theory the Egyptian Army was to protect the frontier (though the British worried the Egyptian Army might not be reliable since Egypt was nominally neutral in the war). The British were mainly determined to defend the Suez Canal, and the Nile Valley to protect the Canal.

Senussi troops
So when the Senussi attack began, the British had few defenses in place. General John Maxwell, the Commander of British Forces in Egypt, determined that Sollum could not readily be defended; it was 450 km from Alexandria and the rail line to the west was completed only as far as Dabaa 121 km east of Mersa Matruh. Sidi Barrani was also considered too exposed. So the British decided to draw up their defenses at Mersa Matruh.

On November 20, the British created the Western Frontier Force, a quickly improvised mix of British and colonial troops. It was commanded by Major-General Alexander Wallace of the 11th Indian Division. He commanded a mix of British, Indian, Australian and New Zealand forces.His infantry was a Composite Infantry Brigade commanded by Brigadier-General the Earl of Lucan and consisting of the 1/6th Royal Scots, 2/7 and 2/8th Middlesex, 15th Sikhs and auxiliaries, a detachment of the Egyptian Army Military Works Department, and the Divisional Train of the 1st Australian Division. Of these only the 15th Sikhs were a regular unit of the Indian Army.

The cavalry, commanded by Brigadier-General J.D.T. Tyndale-Briscoe, was even more diverse: a Composite Mounted Brigade consisting of three Composite Regiments representing some 20 different Yeomanry Regiments; a Composite Regiment of Australian Light Horse; and the Nottinghamshire Battery of Royal Horse Artillery.

These initial scratch forces were reinforced by December 3 by a Battery of the Honourable Artillery Company, two Royal Marines Guns two aircraft from the Royal Flying Corps and six armored cars.

Other forces were deployed to guard other points. As early as November 29, the 1/1st North Midland Mounted Brigade and the Berkshire Battery Royal Horse Artillery moved into the Fayyum to protect it. Meanwhile the protection of the coastal railroad between Alexandria and the then-railhead at Dabaa, as wall as the Moghara oasis, was assigned to the 2nd New Zealand Rifle Brigade, a company of thr15th Sikhs, some of the Bikanir Camel Corps, an Egyptian Army Machine Gun Section and an armored train garrisoned by 1/10th Gurkha Rifles., 1915..

This hastily assembled force knew there were Senussi forces massing southwest of Mersa Matruh. Once the garrisons between Sollum and Matruh had been withdrawn to Matruh, the stage was set for the first action, beginning December 11, 1915. I'll tell that tale December 11.

Hanukkah Wishes

Let me begin the week by wishing my Jewish readers best wishes for Hanukkah, which began last night.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

"Does Obama have a Plan to Defeat Hummus?"

I avoid commenting on US politics which, this year in particular, appears to be an exercise in who can get the Middle East most wrong. But, low-hanging fruit though it may be, Dr. Ben Carson's conflation of Hamas with hummus is too wonderful to ignore: "Ben Carson confuses terrorist group Hamas with Middle Eastern food in speech to Republican Jews."

Also see here.

So I guess if we eradicate chickpeas . . .

Oh, and Donald Trump's speech to the Republican Jewish group, with its talk about what good businessmen and deal-makers they were struck many listeners as invoking anti-Semitic stereotypes.

November/December 1915: The Senussi (Sanusi) Campaign Begins, Part I

As we proceed through our periodic marking of the centennial of WWI, it's time to introduce another generally neglected theater of the Great War in the Middle East: the Senussi (Sanusi) or Western Desert campaign, which lasted from November 1915 until 1917.

The primary mission of the British Empire Forces in Egypt (many of them ANZACs) was the defense of the Suez Canal  against any renewed  Turkish offensive. Protecting Egypt's other borders was, at least nominally, the role of the Egyptian Army. But when the war began Egypt faced few threats except from the east, since it ruled Sudan with the British and the rest of North Africa was controlled by British Ally France or initially neutral Italy.

It was not until May of 1915 that Italy entered the war on the Allied side. Bear in mind that until 1911  Libya had been Ottoman territory until seized by Italy. When Italy entered the War, the Ottomans saw an opportunity to renew their interests in Libya, and perhaps threaten Egypt from the west.

The instrument was to be the Sanusi order, which most European powers at the time Spelled Senussi. The Sanusiyya was a tribally based Sufi order with followers in much of the Saharan interior, which had been active in resisting French expansion in Algeria and the Italian in Libya. The Senussi had generally not bothered the British in Egypt, but they had followers in Egypt's western oases.

Sayyid Ahmad al-Sharif al-Sanusi
The head of the Order in 1915 was Sayyid Ahmad al-Sharif al-Sanusi, commonly called 'The Grand Senussi" by Westerners.

As early as February 1915, prior to Italy's entering the war, the Ottomans approached Sayyid Ahmad to sound him out. Two officers, Captain Nuri (later known as Nuri Killigil), a half brother of War Minister Enver Pasha, and Major Ja‘far al-‘Askari, an Arab officer from Baghdad who would later join the Arab Revolt and play a prominent role in postwar Iraq.

They were secretly landed in Libya from a Greek ship carrying gold and met surreptitiously with Sayyid Ahmad. They eventually persuaded him to declare jihad against both he Italians and the British, and hoped he would attack Egypt while the Sultan of Darfur would rise against the British in Sudan.

In August of 1915, British submarines seeking shelter on the Libyan coast came under fire, and in November the crews of two torpedoed ships, HMS Tara and HM Transport Moorina landed on the Libyan coast and were taken prisoner by the Senussi. The British protested but did not immediately confront them.

The Egyptian-Libyan border had not been formally delineated at the time of the Italo-Turkish War in 1911, though it was generally considered that Sollum was in Egypt. The borders in the interior were undemarcated, and the Senussi had may adherents in the Siwa Oasis, which would become a base of operations.

Some 5000 Senussi fighters with Turkish and German arms were concentrated at Siwa.

On November 6, 1915 two Egyptian coast guard ships were attacked in Sollum harbor by the German submarine U-35, and one was sunk. On November 17 and 18, Senoussi raids struck at Sollum and at Sidi Barrani to the east, and by November 21 the Senussi regular forces had crossed into Egypt.

In Part II, we'll look at the British response.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Back Soon

I've been simultaneously fighting a bug and on deadline so far this week. Normal blogging pace should resume soon.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Turkish Court Wants Experts to Determine if Comparing Erdoğan to Gollum is an Insult

I'm not making this up. From Today's Zaman:
Because no decision was reached in the fourth hearing of a case in which Aydın-based physician Dr. Bilgin Çiftçi was accused of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan after sharing a meme comparing Erdoğan's facial expressions to the Gollum character in the “The Lord of the Rings” movies, a court has demanded an expert examination to investigate Gollum's character to decide whether a comparison with him is an insult.
 I wonder what they'll decide?