Houellebecq's Submission

Adam Shatz reviews Michel Houellebecq's Soumission in the London Review of Books.

Soumission derives its name from the original meaning of the Arabic ‘al-Islam’ – voluntary submission, or surrender, to the will of God. In that sense, the novel is a faithful rendering of Islam’s meaning. François is under no compulsion to convert, other than the usual inducements of professional ambition and sex, the typical motors of the French novel. Ben Abbes’s arrival is greeted with relief, the war between theidentitaires and the jihadists is brought to an end, and Islamisation proceeds not so much by conquest as by persuasion. The national patrimony – the Sorbonne, the Paulhan hôtel particulier – now belongs to the Gulf sheikhdoms, and on campus the miniskirt has given way to the burqa, but otherwise France is unchanged. In fact it’s even a bit better off. As Houellebecq says, the entire novel unfolds in an ‘ambience of resignation’.
Is Houellebecq condemning the French for capitulating to Islam, or worse, accusing them of ‘collaboration’? His critics have pointed out that the structure of Soumissionresembles narratives about Vichy: a confused period of civil unrest; an exodus to the countryside; and accommodation to the new regime. But really, far from damning the French for embracing Ben Abbes, Houellebecq is suggesting that they could do much worse: indeed, that they are already doing much worse. And, as Houellebecq reminds us, ‘moderate Muslims are not Nazis.’
Perhaps this is all just a Swiftian stunt. Perhaps Houellebecq is saying that France has sunk so low that even Islam would be preferable to the state religion of laïcité. But I don’t think so. Soumission is too ambiguous to be read as satire – or, for that matter, as nightmare. There are strong indications, both in the novel and in interviews, that Houellebecq sees Islam as a solution, if not the solution, to the crisis of French civilisation. Yes, civilisation, that word evocative of the longue durée, religion, tradition, shared values and, not least, clashes with civilisational rivals. But the word is unavoidable. What has always made his writing so perverse is the way it jumps between microsociology and the aerial view of history. (His novels almost always take place at some point in the future, allowing the present to be depicted as a just vanished past.) Houellebecq has an unerring, Balzacian flair for detail, and his novels provide an acute, disenchanted anatomy of French middle-class life: TV dinners, petty intrigues at the workplace, tourism, sex. But since his characters are never more than sociological types, without much of an interior life, he needs to find another narrative for them: hence the role played by history. For Houellebecq, history is the story of the rise and fall of civilisations. The only lasting civilisations, as he sees it, rest on a solid foundation of shared religious values. Once those values disintegrate, a civilisation slides into inexorable decline, and becomes susceptible to what, in Atomised (1998), he called a ‘metaphysical mutation’, a sudden and decisive transformation of its values. These metaphysical mutations are the engine of history. Politics and economics – the stuff materialists get worked up about – are of secondary importance. (By any objective measure, France isn’t doing so badly: people work less and make more, and have a higher life expectancy than the OECD average. The ‘crisis’ of the French model is partly phantasmagorical.)

I'm reading this book now. It has some entertaining bits, some nice phrase assassines on French academia, politics and media. But generally it disappoints, mostly because of how much it repeats familiar themes and scenes. Once again there is the morose view of a culture corroded by individualism, materialism and humanism. Once again explicit, porn-like sex scenes meant to convey the opposite of intimacy. Houellebecq seems to have reached the point in his career where his style is becoming a pastiche of itself. As Shatz notes, "At the beginning of Soumission, Houellebecq says that while the style of a novel matters and ‘the musicality of phrases have their importance,’ ‘an author is above all a human being, present in his books.’ He is distressingly present in Soumission."

Because Soumission came out the day before the Charlie Hebdo attack (the magazine featured Houellebecq on its cover) it has been treated as not only relevant -- the author is certainly gifted at hitting on nerves -- but somehow prescient. But the scenario it unfolds is political science fiction. This is not a book about Islam or Muslims at all; it is a book about a decades-long French malaise and, as usual, about Michel Houellebecq himself. 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

In prison in Egypt

Part of a testimony published on El Bedaia web site by Ahmad Gamal Ziada, a journalist being held in Abu Zabal prison. 

Still the soldiers try to provoke me. They push me with their sticks and laugh. "Move journalist, ha ha ha, you complain of your masters?!" I did not reply to avoid problems. But one of them said: "Son of a bitch"! I protested in a loud voice so that the warden would hear me. I told him I wanted to report the insult. The warden laughed and told the masked soldiers and the officer Ahmed Omar: "Take him and make the report." The signs of that report are still on my body. I took my share of beatings and instead of making the report I requested, the warden made a report against me and accused me of individual excitement (Thank God it was not one of sexual excitement against an ignorant man who described my mother as a whore). He wrote that my punishment was 24 hours in disciplinary detention. I told the chief investigating officer what happened and he said: I tried to convince the warden and Ahmed Beh not to put you in disciplinary detention, but they seem annoyed with you. And because their highnesses were annoyed with me they put me in disciplinary detention for seven days instead of 24 hours and wrote a report that I refused to enter the cell!! I entered the death chamber: A cell, 3 times 5 feet big, half a blanket, a rotten smelling plastic box to use as a toilet, since it is forbidden to open the cell throughout the duration of the punishment, a dirty bottle of water, a rotten loaf of bread and an equally rotten piece of cheese. No air, no light, no life! I declared a hunger strike, but no one cared. "We did not bring you here to eat", said the officer. I said tell the prison administration that I shall not end my hunger strike except after a human rights visit to these inhumane graves.
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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

The war in Yemen (in 1963)

Patrick Seale reported for The New Republic on the war in Yemen in 1963, which saw Egypt intervening to prop up a new republican regime, against the monarchy supported by Saudi Arabia and Jordan. 

President Nasser's armed intervention in Yemen is the most ambitious and dangerous foreign adventure of his career. It has brought him to the brink of war with Saudi Arabia and Jordan and provides American diplomacy in the Middle East with possibly its greatest challenge since Suez. By recognizing, in December, the republican regime of Marshal Sallal--Nasser's protege in Yemen--the United States has clashed with her British ally and has taken sides in the inter-Arab struggle for power. Why did Washington do it, and what are the military facts?
For the last three months, an Egyptian expeditionary force--put at between 12,000 and 15,000--has been fighting a savage guerrilla war in north and east Yemen against tribes loyal to the Imamate who will not accept the republican couip d'etat by which Sallal overthrew the royalist government. These Egyptian forces--Nasser's crack combat units--were trained for desert not for mountain warfare. Their expensive equipment, their Soviet-built tanks, armored personnel carriers and Ilyushin jet bombers, are not ideally suited for operations in the crazy maze of narrow defiles and boulder-strewn mountains of northern Yemen.
A main road in these parts is a barely discernible single-file, pencil-line camel track linking two waterholes across a moon-landscape of black surging rock threaded by pale dry watercourses. Clumps of white thorn, dry as tinder, spring into flame at the touch of a match to warm the night marches. In this terrain, the slow-moving Nile Valley peasant has proved a poor match for the barefoot, elusive tribesmen armed only with rifle and jambiya--the vast, curved, razor-sharp dagger which every male Yemeni wears in his belt.
But quite apart from individual fighting qualities, it was evident (at least to this correspondent from conversations with Egyptian prisoners) that whereas the Egyptians seem uncertain why they are there, the Yemeni tribes are fighting a foreign invader in the name of Islam and of their traditional way of life and form of government--and are enjoying opportunities for loot on a scale probably unparalleled since the incense caravans of Sheba. I met a man who had acquired 80 Egyptian blankets; another had a couple of hundred cans of excellent Egyptian beans; children were dressed in rags of parachute silk and every royalist camp was littered with captured weapons, bazooka bombs, boxes of grenades and Egyptian cigarettes.


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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Egyptian Christians pretend to be Muslim to survive ISIS attack in Libya

A gut-wrenching account of the capture of Egyptian Christians by the Islamic State in Libya, by Betsy Hiel in the Pittsburg Tribune-Review:

“There were two rooms for Christians,” recalled Hamdi Ashour, 29, a construction worker who shared Mahrouf's quarters. “We pointed out one.”

He and the frightened workers said Christian men sleeping in the second room “were our cousins from our village and were Muslim,” Ashour said. “If they opened up that second door, we would have been killed, too,” because the gunmen would have easily discovered that the sleeping men were Copts.

“They opened up the first room and took seven Christians.”

“Of course, we were afraid,” said Mahrouf, explaining the horrible decision they made at gunpoint. “These people came at us with weapons loaded and banging on the door.”

He and the other men watched as the terrorists “jumped over the fence into the next courtyard and did the same thing” in the adjoining compound.

Like Mahrouf and his companions, the men in the second compound “were under the gun and told them where the Christians were, and ISIS took six of them.”

Osama Mansour, a Christian, was sleeping in a room of the first compound when ISIS burst in. Warned of what was happening, he slipped outside and “jumped from fence to fence just ahead of the gunmen,” he said.

He escaped but was left on his own in the dangerous city, separated from his friends.

“I stayed (in Sirte) for 30 days, but I didn't stay in the same room” from night to night, said the 26-year-old tile worker.

A man he called “Sheikh Ali,” a Muslim from his home province of Assuit, helped Mansour hide and constantly change locations. Eventually, he grew a beard in order to leave Sirte.

“ISIS had two checkpoints that they would move around. I heard they were checking for tattoos” — he pointed to the bluish-black cross that he and many Coptic Christians ink on the insides of their wrists — “and we put a plaster cast on my hand and wrist. Sheikh Ali gave me a Quran and a prayer rug for the trip.

“I had to do this — I can't have my mother wearing black” for mourning, Mansour said.

What Happened in Homs

The New York Review of Books publishes an excerpt of Jonathan Littel's Syrian Notebooks:

Ever since the beheading of the journalist James Foley, Da‘esh has become the overwhelming obsession of Western governments, clouding all other issues. The regime and its Russian friends can be proud: their goal of, if not quite rehabilitating, at least bringing al-Assad back into the game as a key player, is now within reach. Even more than the fate of the broader Middle East, it is the fear, even to the point of psychosis, of another jihadi backlash against Western interests—of another September 11 or July 7 or January 7—that is driving European and US decision making. From there to working with al-Assad is only a step, no matter how much our leaders deny it. Sadly, this won’t benefit the Syrian people much.
A recent set of statistics published by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, usually considered one of the most reliable independent observer of the conflict, might serve as a useful reminder even if the figures are probably underestimated: as of March 2015, the regime had killed 176,678 Syrian civilians, including 18,242 children, as opposed to 1,054 civilians (of which 145 were children) killed by Da‘esh. Our new enemy should not make us forget who is at the root of the disaster; the Syrians certainly haven’t. The French journalist Sofia Amara cites, in her recent book, the new slogan chanted, with their eternal dark humor, by Syrian activists seen in a video marching through devastated streets: “What is left of the Syrian people wants the fall of the regime.”


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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

You probably won’t read this piece about Syria - Al Jazeera English

AJE's online editor, Barry Malone, on how few read about Syria's humanitarian disaster anymore:

We have seen a stagnation in traffic to our Syria conflict stories since 2012 with intermittent peaks when it makes headlines - Assad says something unusual, the possibility of Western missiles.

Recently, though there have been occasional spikes, they appear mostly related to ISIL. The taking of Fallujah, the fall of Mosul, the detestable beheadings, and the sledgehammering of history.

The twisted steal the attention. And the people we should pay attention to fade into the background, bit players in a narrative wrongly and unfairly dominated by the grotesque.

We find that stories about the suffocating grind and everyday hardship of war don't do as well. Stories about the almost four million Syrians who have been forced to flee their country, the same.

Selling the world on Egypt

Jack Shenker gives a great run-down of the economic conference to tout Egypt's prospects. 

Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, was among the first to pay homage to the reform-minded credentials of a man responsible for what Human Rights Watch (whose website was blocked on the conference WiFi network) has labelled one of the largest state massacres of demonstrators in modern history; John Kerry, the US secretary of state, Philip Hammond, the UK foreign secretary, and Blair all followed suit as the weekend progressed.
But memories are short. A foreign-investment led, GDP-growth orientated economic model was the hallmark of Mubarak’s dictatorship and received glowing approval from the IMF. The outcome was epic corruption, eye-watering riches for a crony capitalist class at the top and immiseration for everyone else; Bread, Freedom, Social Justice was the revolution’s slogan, though none of Egypt’s post-Mubarak regimes – from the junta that took power immediately after the January 2011 uprising, to the short-lived, aggressively free-market government of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, to the new military autocracy – have bothered to take the latter demand seriously. The Brotherhood declared last week that Egypt is not for sale, forgetting that exactly the same multinational corporations currently signing deals in Sharm el-Sheikh were fawned over and flogged to by Morsi as well. At Egypt’s economic summit, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
In reality, the conference is about the Egyptian military showcasing a business-as-usual vision for the future, one in which Gulf and western capital works in partnership with senior generals to carve up and commodify the country, and where Egypt’s identity – contested so dramatically in the streets over recent years – is curated solely and safely from the top. But Sisi could not pull off such a feat on his own. Enter an interconnected grid of international consultancies and high-level public relations agencies that specialise in subtly repositioning a nation’s image.


On Israel's elections

Yonatan Mendel in the London Review of Books:

All Jewish parties in Israel (except Meretz, which is against the occupation and is as progressive as its Zionist boundaries allow it to be) share a desire to show that they have the guts to stand up for Israel vis-à-vis international law, and that they are anti-Arab. Netanyahu is a maestro at the first, with his great effort to demonstrate that he doesn’t give a damn about the Israel-US relationship. He insisted on speaking to Congress when no one from Obama to Aipac wanted him there, because back home it meant the world to him: the message was that he is tough and doesn’t answer to anybody. Bennett is quite good at this too. He recently released a video in which he walks through Tel Aviv dressed as a hipster with a long fake ginger beard. Everywhere he goes he says: ‘Oh sorry, I am so sorry, oh sorry, indeed, forgive me, I am so sorry’ – a joke at the expense of Israeli leftists who apologise too much to the international community for Israel’s ongoing violations of international law. Lieberman did his best to follow the act, but his performance was too blunt. Following an attack by Hizbullah on Israel’s northern border (a response to an Israeli attack that killed 12 people, among them an Iranian general and Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of a former Hizbullah commander), Lieberman said that ‘Israel’s response should be harsh and disproportionate.’ Livni and Herzog also wish to be seen as being as patriotic and Zionist as possible. They’ve all but dropped the name of Herzog’s party and are campaigning as the Zionist Union. This evocative name both alienates Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and signals to the world that the Israeli ‘alternative’ has nothing new to offer, not even its vocabulary. To make sure of being properly anti-democratic, Livni and Herzog decided to join the usual game of trying to disqualify an Arab MK, in this case Haneen Zoabi, from running for parliament. Knowing the proposal would never be approved by the Supreme Court not only figured in their calculations but encapsulated a hidden dream. They knew that in Israel in 2015, if the Supreme Court throws you off the staircase, it can only do you good.
Displays of anti-Arab sentiment are a vital part of any election campaign. A straightforwardly anti-Semitic video was recently released by the Samaria Residents’ Council, a settler group, in which money-grabbing Jewish-Israeli leftists are seen receiving donations from Europeans depicted as Nazis. ‘For them you will always remain a Jew,’ the video says, trying to show that the Europeans who support human rights movements and joint Jewish-Arab initiatives in Israel are neo-Nazis. In another election video, Sharon Gal, a candidate for Lieberman’s party, is seen dressed as a gardener uprooting weeds from the Israeli garden. He calls the weeds by the names of Arab MKs: ‘Here I uproot an intrusive Tibi … and here I uproot a poisonous Zahalka.’ Lieberman himself came up with a fine uprooting slogan: ‘Ariel for Israel, Umm al-Fahm for Palestine’ (in other words, annex the city-settlement of Ariel to Israel and ‘in return’ uproot fifty thousand Arab citizens of Israel and transfer them to Palestine). Danny Danon from Netanyahu’s Likud released a video in which, dressed as a sheriff, he turns up in a bar in the Wild West and throws out an Arab MK (Zoabi), who ends up motionless on the ground. In another Likud video, Isis militants drive jeeps into Israel; the slogan says that the Israeli ‘left’, that anonymous and mysterious entity, will lead Isis into Jerusalem. (The video had loud Arabic music, which is intimidating for Israelis, and that’s what’s important.) Herzog released a video in which friends from his military intelligence unit tell of his heroism in the army:

Herzog grew up in military intelligence, which means he knows the Arab mentality. He saw Arabs on different occasions; he saw them on the other side of the gun-sight, and behind the gun-sight … The most important man in this business is the person who knows what the state of Israel needs to do with a piece of information. Whether this means firing a rocket, or sending troops forward, or wiping out these people.

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Sisi likes to talk about himself in the third person

WaPo's Lally Weymouth scores another interview with the Egyptian president:

What do you think the U.S. should do?

Support Egypt, support the popular will of the Egyptians.

Do you mean the U.S. should stand by you?

Sissi reflects the popular will of Egyptians.

. . .

You think the U.S. government just doesn’t understand Egypt’s needs?

You can’t get the real picture of what is going on here in our country. . . . We are an underdeveloped country. You look at Egypt with American eyes. Democracy in your country has evolved over 200 years. Just give us a chance to develop. If we rush things, countries like ours will collapse.

You’ve said the word “collapse” twice now. Is that something that concerns you?

Of course.

Nobody else mentions it.

You know why? Because they have a lot of confidence in Sissi. But I am just a human being. I cannot do everything. When Somalia collapsed, didn’t the U.S. leave? Do you want Egypt to become a failed state and then you wash your hands of it?

The interview has a few other signs of delusions of grandeur...

On Yarmouk

Excellent Guardian Long Read on the Palestinian neighborhood of Damascus and its infamous siege. 

This was how Yarmouk entered the world’s consciousness: a refugee camp designed as a safe haven for the Palestinian diaspora that had become the worst place on earth. No electricity for months. No piped water. No access for food. Worse still, no chance for people to leave or return, except for a handful of emergency medical cases or the few who had the means to pay people-smugglers to get them through the multiple checkpoints. Some called it Syria’s Gaza, but its plight was even worse, because the siege was more comprehensive; Yarmouk was a prison from which there was no escape.

But notoriety can be short-lived.

The opening in the siege that UNRWA had negotiated in January 2014 applied only fitfully throughout the year: food deliveries were only possible on 131 days, and often less than half the amount required got through. Since 6 December, the siege has once again become impassable. UNRWA reports that it has not been able to deliver any food at all for the past 12 weeks. “We are getting new reports of people dying of malnutrition and of women dying in childbirth, but nothing can be confirmed,” said Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s spokesperson. Unlike in Gaza, where UNRWA has several offices, the organisation cannot enter Yarmouk at all.
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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Why ISIS' destruction hurts so much

Thanassis Cambanis on why the destruction of antiquities bothers us so much. 

In just one week of massive historical vandalism, the Islamic State has produced a stark coda to a century that has transformed the Middle East from one of the world’s most diverse and cosmopolitan regions into a sterile, ethnically cleansed patchwork.
“It’s never about artifacts. It’s about people’s right to exist, their right to live in their homeland,” says Zainab Bahrani, a Columbia University archaeologist who has worked as an antiquities adviser for the Iraqi government. “You destroy people’s history by destroying their monuments and artifacts. It’s similar to having the Athenian acropolis destroyed, or thugs going to Versailles and blowing up the whole palace.”
Bahrani was one of the first to sound the alarm about the importance of cultural objects in 2003, when the Baghdad Museum was looted during the US invasion. At the time Istrabadi, the constitutional scholar and her cousin, recalls telling Bahrani that the overthrow of the tyrant Saddam Hussein was worth the loss of some prized objects.
Bahrani got angry: “This is our entire historical identity,” she told him.
Now, more than a decade later, both cousins have left Iraq. Their extended family exemplified a mid-20th century ideal of cosmopolitan, secular Sunnis who felt at home throughout the Arab world and beyond, choosing their friends without regard to religion or nationality.
Istrabadi has come around to his cousin’s way of seeing things.
Iraq, the place that gave the world written language and the first code of law, today plays host to its most savage nihilists — and as much as he would like to think otherwise, Istrabadi believes that there is some constituency for the Islamic State’s program of destruction and cultural erasure.
“For those of us who hold a belief in the ascent of man, it refutes the idea that we’re heading to a better level of humanity,” he said. “It’s just incredible to watch. I feel helpless. ”
The statues, for Istrabadi, were the final straw. For everything else, he said, you can fool yourself “we can have a better tomorrow, we can turn back the sectarian tide,” he said. “Someone destroys a 3,000-year-old statue with a sledgehammer, there’s no bringing that back. There’s no fooling yourself. It’s proof that these people are not a transient phenomenon. They will be defeated, but they will leave a residue behind.”

The Humble Tomato | MERIP

A fun riff on the tomato in Egyptian political culture by Tessa Farmer:

A common joke uses tomato sauce as a reference point for the country’s political difficulties as well. “Law nahr al-Nil ba’a salsa, mish haykaffi al-kusa illi fiki ya Masr (Even if the Nile became tomato sauce, it wouldn’t be enough for all the zucchini in Egypt).” Zucchini, or kusa, is often made into mahshi, stuffed with rice and cooked in tomato sauce, a popular meal for those who work hard to stretch their food budgets. Kusa is also a gloss for nepotism and corruption, the joke being that the problem is so endemic that a river of tomato sauce could not cover it up.

Over the last several years, tomatoes have frequently figured as mediums of Egyptian political sentiment as one dynasty folded and others struggle to be born. There was the kerfuffle in 2012 over a Facebook post by a salafi group warning that the tomato is a Christian fruit because, when cut in half, its insides resemble a cross. It was another nail in the coffin of rational thought among the religiously oriented, or so argued those opposed to the rise of the Muslim Brothers and other religious parties. “These people,” it was said, even cast sectarian aspersions on the prosaic tomato! Then there were the rumors that Israeli tomatoes in the Egyptian market were poisoned with high concentrations of solanine, a naturally occurring glycoalkaloid in plants in the nightshade family. The story started, it seems, with the idea that genetically modified seeds from Israel were being smuggled in through Gaza. Last, but certainly not least, were the tomatoes and shoes thrown at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her summer 2012 visit to Egypt by people who blamed the US for supporting the Muslim Brothers during their short and contentious time in power. Clinton brushed aside the intentions behind those tomatoes and instead lamented the waste of food. The humble tomato sure gets around.

On ISIS' Iconoclasm

Elliott Colla puts ISIS' recent destruction of Assyrian antiquities in historical context, and explains the extremist group's view of why their display was sacrilegious. This is an interesting read, although I don't see how a modern statue of Saddam Hussein (which Colla rightly points out the US toppled after its own victory in Iraq) has a comparable historical (let alone aesthetic) value to those antiquities. 

It was not just that Europeans arrived to tell everyone that these rocks were sacred (albeit in a non-religious sense), although that happened. It was also that, as Europeans gained control of the region, these same sites and objects were redesignated as excavation sites and museums then cordoned off into 'no-go zones.' It was under the new antiquities laws -- designed to protect and conserve the objects for civilization -- that local peasants were conscripteden masse to work under slave conditions for the great White archaeologists making great 'discoveries' about the ancient past.
Champions of antiquities preservation need to take these colonial and autocratic legacies into consideration as they grapple with the form of iconoclasm practiced by ISIS. And for the record, because there seems to be a doctrinal element to ISIS's practices, it does seem right to think of it as iconoclasm rather than vandalism. The austere Sunni ideology of ISIS (like that of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia) is one that thinks of itself as iconoclastic in the most basic sense of the word. It is a form of monotheism obsessed with the issue of shirk (the worship of false gods), and finds evidence of it everywhere. It opposes the veneration of objects -- whether in temples or in museums -- on the grounds that such veneration is a threat to monotheistic worship. Like the Wahhabis of the 18th century, we can expect them to attack objects where people worship in a way that threatens their monotheistic conception of Islam, be it at tombs where Shia venerate saints or temples where non-Muslims worship other gods. In this context, it is natural that they would also target museums, since for them these also represent places of false worship.
This aspect is missed by those who focus solely on the pagan provenance of the artifacts, and think that ISIS is fighting a ridiculously old and anachronistic battle. It is true that the Assyrian objects destroyed in the Mosul Museum are of pagan origin, but that is not the only reason why ISIS targeted them. They were not only or primarily targeting theobjects in the museum, but rather the form of veneration -- the attitude of sacred appreciation -- represented in the institution of the museum itself. They are also, much like the gunmen in Paris, attempting to "sharpen contradictions" in an effort to create a conflict of civilizations. 
Most museum goers and appreciators of ancient artifacts do not think of their practices as a form of religion. But it is not so hard to see how the iconoclasts of ISIS imagine "false religion" when see the trappings of veneration that pervade museums. Nor are they entirely wrong to cry 'religion' when they hear absolutist claims about transcendent value, even those made by secularists and self-professed atheists. 
Finally, before Americans issue more blanket condemnations of ISIS's ugly form of iconoclasm, we might do well to put our own selves back into the history of toppling statues in Iraq. Weren't we championing iconoclasm and broadcasting it on our own television screens not so long ago? Didn't we, as victors, begin our celebrations by toppling the sacred objects of our enemies?Is it that we, the civilized, abhor the wanton destruction of all objects and histories, or just some?
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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Democracy in Egypt: Always A Reason to Wait

The Atlantic Council translates a recent column by Amr Hamzawy -- one of the very few true liberals in Egypt --  in Shurouq newspaper:

From the mid-1900s until now, many different issues have been used to complete the argument that democracy must be postponed because “nothing is more important than such and such issue.” The issues that have completed this argument have included: national independence, development and preparing the people to practice democracy, socialism, the liberation of Palestine, confronting Zionism and imperialism, the battle to liberate the territory of the nation, economic well-being, stability, the preservation of the national state, and the war against terrorism. 
...
In turn, these tactics are used to propagate a third illusion that contributes to the current siege on the concept of democracy in Egypt: the illusion of “national necessity.” Through this illusion, authoritarianism can effectively ensure its continued grip on power.  Prior to and following the summer of 2013, my writings consistently warned of the authoritarian trend behind the claims that the military intervention in politics on July 3 was an “act of necessity” and that the former Minister of Defense, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was participating in the presidential elections as the “candidate of necessity,” later to become the “president of necessity” following the announcement of the election results. These claims of “necessity” are truly authoritarian, as they – in the best of cases – justify departing from democracy, based on the pretext that there was no alternative to an intervention by the military establishment in politics, even when the alternative of holding early presidential elections certainly was possible. In the worst of cases, such claims of “necessity” effectively strip citizens of the right to freely choose their leaders through elections by legitimizing the presidential candidate backed by the system of rule (or its lists and candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections) as a matter of “national necessity.”
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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Partisan leader: President is not interested in parliament elections

Via Egypt Independent, striking quotes (for him) from Social Democratic Party leader Mohammed Aboul Ghar on the (yet again) postponement of parliamentary elections in Egypt because a the Supreme Constitutional Court found the electoral district law to be unconstitutional. Aboul Ghar was an important cheerleader for Abdelfattah al-Sisi's coup in July 2013, only find his party and others like it sidelined by an electoral setup that favors a fragmented parliament with small electoral district to favor local notables and vote-buying (both tend to be more difficult/expensive in larger districts, where it is more helpful to have a party machine to organize) with strong control by the presidency. Many will say it's too little too late for a system that has gone from (allegedly) "one man, one vote, one time" to "one man (Sisi), all the time, no vote", but considering Aboul Ghar and his ilk have been largely to cowed by the return of the security state to express even a semi-coherent political discourse, this should be welcomed. After all, if no one is asking for anything better, it's hardly likely to come.

A renowned politician has said that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi does not want parliamentary elections to be held at the current period, days after a verdict was handed down by the Supreme Constitutional Court against the constitutionality of the law regulating the polls, causing its postponement.

“The president does not want a parliament right now, hence the delay in the official invitation for voting and the large number of unconstitutional legislations adopted by the state in the absence of the parliament,” said Mohamed Abul Ghar, chairman of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, adding that many laws enacted over the past period turn Egypt into “a police state”.

“The general atmosphere suggests that the president and the state either do not want a parliament at all, or seek a fragile, divided parliament that is unable to make a decision or practice oversight on the executive authority.”

Abul Ghar, however, said that the court’s verdict against the constituencies law has nothing to do with the regime’s disinterest in elections.

“The court ruling, in my judgement, was independent and objective, addressing an unconstitutional law,” Abul Ghar said.

Asked whether the postponement of elections has any benefits, Abul Ghar replied, “If the electoral system is not changed entirely, there would be no gains, just losses, it is a futile postponement.”

Recordings Suggest Emirates and Egyptian Military Pushed Ousting of Morsi

The NYT on the latest leaked recordings, suggesting Tamarod received foreign funding. If all this is true, one of the ironies would be that the senior ranks of the Egyptian military and intelligence services engaged in exactly what they frequently accuse the revolutionaries of 2011 of doing: fomenting political strife with foreign financing. Generally speaking, when military officers take foreign money to undermine their commander-in-chief, that's called treason.

They appear to record Gen. Abbas Kamel, Mr. Sisi’s office manager and top aide, speaking by telephone with Gen. Sedky Sobhy, who was then the military chief of staff and is now defense minister.

They appear to be discussing a bank account controlled by senior defense officials that had been used by Tamarod, a movement that called for protests on June 30, 2013, to demand an early end to Mr. Morsi’s presidency.

“Sir, we will need 200 tomorrow from Tamarod’s account — you know, the part from the U.A.E., which they transferred,” General Kamel appears to tell General Sobhy in the recording.

General Sobhy’s side of the conversation is not heard. But he apparently brought up the Egyptian intelligence services, or mukhabarat.

“What do you mean by mukhabarat, sir? The mukhabarat guys?” General Kamel appears to say. “Do you remember the account that came for Tamarod?”

He then apparently says to General Sobhy, “We will need only 200 from it — yes, 200,000.” If that sum was in Egyptian pounds, it would have been equivalent to about $30,000 at the time.

If the date on the recording is accurate (and it's not clear that it is, as other reports place it in early 2014, in which case Tamarod would have received financing after Morsi was deposed, not before) it would suggest the wiretapping of Kamel Abbas' office go back a long time, since this would be the earliest recording aired to date.

Lure of the Caliphate by Malise Ruthven | NYRblog

Malise Ruthven on ISIS' millennialism:

Though these ideas are not given prominence in most contemporary practice, the leaders of the Syrian jihad are not the first Islamic movement to give them special weight. In 1881, for example, the Sudanese Muslim cleric Muhammad Ahmad declared himself the Mahdi, conquered Khartoum, and created a state that lasted until 1898. And in 1979, an apocalyptic movement led by several Islamist extremists brought Saudi Arabia briefly into crisis with the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and calls for the overthrow of the House of Saud; the group claimed one of its own leaders as the Mahdi.

In fact, there is a strong pedigree for this ideology in classical Islamic thought. Like Christianity, Islam seems to have begun as a messianic movement warning that the Day of Judgment was imminent. The early suras (chapters) of the Koran are filled with doomsday menace, and the yearning for a final reckoning is deeply encoded in some of the texts. A central figure in this tradition is Dajjal—the one-eyed false messiah who corresponds to the Antichrist of the New Testament. The details vary but most versions agree that the final battle will take place east of Damascus, when Jesus will return as messiah, kill the pigs, destroy Dajjal, and break the cross in his symbolic embrace of Islam.

. . .

For jihadists, such signs are rife in the Middle East today. One of the arguments ISIS and al-Nusra put forward in their apocalyptic rhetoric is that the Bashar al-Assad regime—dominated by the minority and Shia-affiliated Alawite sect, with its killings of children and repression of Islamists—is a “sign” of this departure from fundamental Islamic values that is supposed to precede the final battle.

On Libya's descent into chaos and war

Sharif Abdel Kouddous reports: 

A cold wind whips across Tripoli's landmark Martyrs' Square as a few hundred protesters gather after sunset prayers. Posters of those killed in the fighting are plastered across the front of a stage outfitted with large loudspeakers. A man carrying a plastic box half-filled with cash is collecting donations for Libya Dawn amid makeshift stands selling popcorn and hot tea.
The United Nations is not popular here. A large banner strung between two palm trees bears the face of UN special envoy Bernardino León crossed out in red atop the words, "Sorry, we don't need you." Onstage, a woman is leading the crowd in chants of "Death to Hifter!" and "No dialogue, freedom to the revolutionaries!"
The demonstrations, which have been taking place on a weekly basis since last summer, when Libya Dawn took control of the capital, offer a glimpse into the enormous hurdles standing in the way of a negotiated solution to the conflict.
The UN is seeking to broker a ceasefire and strike a deal for a unified government, distant goals that still fall well short of ending the overall crisis. This month, UN negotiators for the first time held separate meetings with delegates from both sides in the southern town of Ghadames. Yet the eastern parliament this week voted to suspend its participation in the talks. Meanwhile, hardliners among the armed groups still have not joined the talks, believing they can gain more from fighting.
One cause of the growing conflict can be traced to some fateful early decisions: after the fall of the Qaddafi regime, post-revolution governments placed all civilians who had taken up arms on the state payroll, after which the number ballooned from 60,000 in 2011 to more than 200,000 a year later. The government wage bill is now almost three times what it was in 2010.
The militias operated nominally under the authority of the state but were actually loyal to their own commanders. As they began to battle one another over turf and resources, state salaries continued to be paid to fighters on all sides—a Kafkaesque cycle, in which the wealth of the country has been being drained to fund the internal conflict.


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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

He Whose Name Shall Not Be Written

A rather clever piece by the Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg, in the American Prospect:

I live a less blessed life. As an Israeli and a journalist, my aspirations are more limited, yet less within my own power to achieve. I aspire to be able to write about my country's politics without using the name of the current prime minister. I'd like to write my next 300 articles without the N-word. I'd like to think of him, if I think of him at all, as a vague faceless historical memory like, say, James Buchanan.

Israeli elections are a few weeks off. There should be reason to hope. Exhaustion with the prime minister, with his voice, with his confusion between the state and himself is widespread. Each day's news brings new scandals. He is the issue of this next national election—his relations with the Obama administration, his record devoid of achievements, his extravagant expenses billed to the taxpayers. "It's him or us," is the election slogan of the left-of-center alliance called the Zionist Camp, headed by Labor leader Isaac Herzog and indefatigable peace advocate Tzipi Livni.

And yet, I've come to realize that the focus on him is a strategic success for the prime minister's election campaign. It distracts voters' attention from minor questions such as the Palestinians, peace, housing prices, and poverty. It allows himto set the agenda as, "It's me or them," while defining "them" as anti-Zionist elitists who are allies of Iran, the so-called Islamic State and, heaven help us, Barack Obama.

The whole thing never mentions Bibi once.

Weekend read: Yarmouk miniatures

Do sit down with this enlightening, thoughtful, of course heartbreaking essay by a former English teacher -- and Arabic student -- in Damascus. It brought back memories of my own extraordinary tutor in Cairo, a similarly cultured and impassioned and generous man who know a language class could be so much more. 

It was the surreal highlight of a happy day. Looking back, the whole day seems like a scaled-down model of the three years to come: a charmed wandering across the surface of Syrian life, nourished by great food and chance encounters, tutored by countless small embarrassments, cushioned by the privilege of a British passport and an expat salary. The signs of a dictatorship—the presidential portraits, the leather-jacketed security men, the off-limits areas of conversation—were impossible to ignore. But my Syrian friends seemed bright, open-minded, and irreverent. None of them resembled cowed, brainwashed subjects of a totalitarian state. “The regime can be cruel,” a Syrian colleague once told me, “but as long as people stay out of politics, they are left to get on with their lives.” Most days this line was not difficult to believe.
Watching the referendum debke, though, was one of the moments when I realized how little I understood. I could comprehend people voting “Yes,” grudgingly or even wholeheartedly: the president was, on the face of it, widely admired. But this dance of gratitude seemed so undignified. Not even the most devoted supporter could have been in any doubt that the referendum was a farce: the maniacal repetition of the theme song, the ridiculous slogans, the conspicuous absence of a “No” campaign. What led intelligent men and women to dance debke in honor of a president who forced such absurdities on his people?

A video from the Radd Fa'al Crew in Yarmouk camp

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.